Tag Archives: ubi

Cash Transfers for Low Income Expecting Mothers, feat. Zea Malawa

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Cash Transfers for Low Income Expecting Mothers, feat. Zea Malawa

Expecting Justice, a program out of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, is spearheading a cash transfer program for low income expecting mothers, with a focus on Black and Pacific Islander women. Dr. Zea Malawa, who is leading the initiative, joined the podcast to discuss the rationale behind the pilot and how cash transfers can be cost-effective from a healthcare perspective.

If you’d like to support this initiative, you can contact Dr. Malawa by email at zea.malawa@sfdph.org.

Expanding Social Security & Other Programs into a Basic Income

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Expanding Social Security & Other Programs into a Basic Income

Recently an article in Fast Company proposed reaching a basic income by expanding social security. Owen and Jim dive into the pros and cons of that approach for social security, the earned income tax credit (EITC), child tax credit and carbon dividend. Each has advantages to offer and issues to overcome on the policies themselves and the political narratives behind them.

Technological Economic Cycles, feat. Carlota Perez

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Technological Economic Cycles, feat. Carlota Perez

While in many ways it feels like we live in unprecedented economic times, through another lens we have been here before. Dr. Carlota Perez charts economic cycles around technological breakthroughs, and she provides needed clarity on our current economic moment. In this episode, she discusses where we are in today’s economy, how we could proceed forward in a productive way, and the stakes in getting this moment right.

Should Government Programs be Universal or Targeted?

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Should Government Programs be Universal or Targeted?

One of the most common questions we get about basic income is, “why should it be universal?” Or put another way, “what’s the point of giving Bill Gates $1000 a month?” In this episode, Jim and Owen dive into the debate and break down the benefits and drawbacks of universal and targeted programs, and whether a hybrid approach would be possible.

The Great Risk Shift, feat. Jacob Hacker

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
The Great Risk Shift, feat. Jacob Hacker

Since LBJ’s Great Society programs revamped America’s social safety net, the average American has steadily taken on more and more risk, both through increasing costs of healthcare and education, and the growing precarity of employment, due to globalization, automation and contract work, among other factors. Jacob Hacker, professor of Political Science at Yale, has detailed this growing burden in his book The Great Risk Shift, the second volume of which was just released. Hacker joined the podcast to discuss this major trend in the economy and how a basic income could change the equation.

The second edition of the Great Risk Shift may be purchased here: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-great-risk-shift-9780190844141?cc=us&lang=en&

Running for President on Basic Income, feat. Andrew Yang

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Running for President on Basic Income, feat. Andrew Yang

The basic income movement is gaining national exposure through the presidential campaign of Andrew Yang. Yang has now been interviewed by many major TV networks, magazines and podcasts, and he has qualified for the first two Democratic debates. Owen spoke to Andrew Yang as he was on his way to a campaign stop in New Hampshire about running for president, how basic income resonates in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, and how the politics of this might proceed if he were elected president but faced a skeptical Congress.

Unpacking the Data Dividend Concept, feat. Chris Benner

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Unpacking the Data Dividend Concept, feat. Chris Benner

Recently the idea of a “data dividend” has received renewed attention, due to interest from California Governor Gavin Newsom. The idea that people are entitled to a cut of the profits from the data they are producing from their online activity, and even location data that companies are collecting holds some intuitive appeal. But how would this work, and is it a feasible policy? Chris Benner, author and professor in the UC Santa Cruz Sociology Department, joins the podcast to help elucidate the data dividend idea.

Is Italy’s Citizen’s Income a Step in the Right Direction?

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Is Italy's Citizen's Income a Step in the Right Direction?

Italy’s Five-Star Movement rose to power campaigning on a host of proposals, chief among them a “citizen’s income,” a cash assistance program. While there are obvious thing to like about the program, there are problematic elements as well, including the inclusion criteria, and what recipients have to do to stay on the program. Owen and Jim break down the program and discuss whether or not the program should be seen as a step in the right direction.

How Would History Have Been Different If We’d Had a Basic Income?

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
How Would History Have Been Different If We'd Had a Basic Income?

In this discussion episode, Owen and Jim take on some of the major events of the last few decades, asking the question, how would things have been different if we’d had a basic income? The episode examines climate-related disasters, such as the recent fires in California, mass incarceration, and the election of Donald Trump. Examining concrete events in the past helps us consider how basic income might play out in the future.

Germany’s Sanktionsfrei Project, feat. Helena Steinhaus

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Germany's Sanktionsfrei Project, feat. Helena Steinhaus

In Germany, a group called Sanktionsfrei (“sanctions free”) is experimenting with a unique intervention into a public program. Germany’s unemployment benefit system, often referred to as Hartz IV, contains many punitive sanctions for missed filings, appointments and the like. Sanktionsfrei is randomly selecting 250 individuals receiving Hartz IV benefits and automatically reimbursing any fees they incur. While this is a financial help to some, the greater benefit may be the reduced mental strain of having to worry about meeting all of the requirements to get their full benefits. We spoke with Helena Steinhaus, one of the leaders of the Sanktionsfrei movement about this program and what they hope to accomplish.

Basic Income, Jobs, and Joe Biden (rebroadcast)

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Basic Income, Jobs, and Joe Biden (rebroadcast)

Owen and Jim discuss Vice President Joe Biden’s recent objections to basic income, and the practical and philosophical points that come up around basic income and employment. They delve into why a basic income could be good for workers and how automation has both driven and skewed the basic income conversation. They also touch on the increasing precarity of today’s jobs and the highly valuable work that goes uncompensated. This episode originally aired in September 2017.

Basic Income and the Disabled Community, feat. Annie Harper (rebroadcast)

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Basic Income and the Disabled Community, feat. Annie Harper (rebroadcast)

How would a basic income impact the disabled community? We delved into this question with social anthropologist Annie Harper of the Program for Recovery and Community Health, Yale School of Medicine. Harper, who works with mentally disabled people, describes the hopes and concerns a basic income offers. This episode was originally broadcast in November 2017.

How Much Basic Income Would Really Cost, featuring Karl Widerquist (rebroadcast)

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
How Much Basic Income Would Really Cost, featuring Karl Widerquist (rebroadcast)

How much would a basic income in the United States actually cost? What are the most common mistakes people make when calculating a basic income? To answer these questions, we spoke with Karl Widerquist, who has been studying and writing about basic income for three decades. Widerquist recently published a “back of the envelope” calculation on basic income which produced some surprising results. This episode was originally broadcast in September 2017.

Universal Basic Assets, featuring Marina Gorbis (Rebroadcast)

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Universal Basic Assets, featuring Marina Gorbis (Rebroadcast)

When considering the impact of basic income, we usually think of it as a standalone policy — but there’s nothing stopping us from imagining UBI as one piece of a larger policy framework. In this episode, Marina Gorbis, Executive Director of Institute for the Future, shares her perspective on a comprehensive framework for the future: Universal Basic Assets. This episode was originally broadcast in July, 2017.

Examining Iran’s Cash Transfer Program, feat. Dr. Djavad Salehi-Isfahani

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Examining Iran's Cash Transfer Program, feat. Dr. Djavad Salehi-Isfahani

In 2010, Iran replaced their energy subsidies with a cash transfer program, which was originally intended only for poor Iranians, but was expanded to go to everyone. We now have ample data to examine the effects on labor supply and a handful of other social metrics. Much of our knowledge of Iran’s program comes from a study co-authored by our guest this week, Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a professor of Economics at Virginia Tech, and a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Dr. Salehi Isfahani explains both the economic impact of the program and the public reaction to it.

The Movement to Bring UBI to Chicago, feat. Ameya Pawar

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
The Movement to Bring UBI to Chicago, feat. Ameya Pawar

News broke recently that the city of Chicago has formed a task force to examine the future of work and a potential basic income pilot program. Alderman Ameya Pawar joined the podcast to discuss the motivation behind this initiative, who will be on the task force, and its current status.

Designing an American Social Wealth Fund, feat. Matt Bruenig

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Designing an American Social Wealth Fund, feat. Matt Bruenig

One of the leading ideas on how to implement a basic income is a social wealth fund, similar to Alaska’s Permanent Fund, in which a government maintains a fund of various assets and provides dividends to everyone who lives within its borders. Matt Bruenig, President of the People’s Policy Project, recently designed a detailed proposal for implementing a social wealth fund in the US that would be financially and politically stable. He spoke with Jim about how he crafted this design and how he plans to advance it.


Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh.

Owen: One of the leading ideas in the basic income space right now is a social wealth fund similar to what’s going on in Alaska, where they take state revenue mostly from their oil funds and provide a universal dividend to every person there.

Jim: This idea has been taken and built upon and looking at whether potentially it could be replicated both in other states and also potentially ultimately at the national level where we could actually have this big fund that’s paying out these universal dividends to everyone in the country that might, at some point, actually start to approach a full universal basic income.

Owen: One of the big thinkers on this topic is Matt Bruenig. He is the founder of the People’s Policy Project. He recently published a very detailed expansive proposal for a social wealth fund for the entire United States. Jim got to sit down with Matt Bruenig and discuss his proposal.

Jim: Matt, thank you so much for joining us on the program.

Matt: Thanks for having me.

Jim: Now, in late 2017, you wrote a piece in The New York Times about a specific model for financing a universal dividend program, which you dubbed a social wealth fund. We’ve actually talked a few times about social wealth funds on the podcast in the past, but just to make sure that everyone is up to speed, can you generally explain what a social wealth fund is and how it works?

Matt: Yes. In its broadest definition, a social wealth fund is a collective pool of generally financial assets that is owned by the government, and the return on those assets is used for social welfare purposes. In my specific version of a social wealth fund, the government creates a new fund, gives every person in the country one share of ownership in the fund, then it fills the fund up with assets. As those assets generate a return, that return is then paid out to the owners of the fund, which again, is everyone in America who would own one share of the fund. That’s the basic model for my particular implementation of the general idea.

Jim: On that note, you released a quite extensive and specific proposal last month for the creation of an American social wealth fund, which you dubbed the American Solidarity Fund. Can you tell us more about what specifically is in that proposal?

Matt: Yes. It is, like I said, in broad strokes, the government will create a new fund, I call it the American Solidarity Fund. It will also create a new management company, which will be a government corporation. That management company will be charged with running the fund, basically investing it just like any asset manager does in the private sector. Every American would be given one share of ownership in the fund. Every year, they would receive a dividend based on the returns on that fund.

The biggest, I guess, question mark that the paper tries to answer is, how do you get assets into the fund in the first place? We know how to basically run a fund. It’s just like a pension fund or a mutual fund, it’s not a complicated thing. We know how to pay out dividends to people. That happens again, in the financial industry all the time. It also happens that the government sends out checks to people quite regularly, whether Social Security or similar, but the big question is, how do you get money into the fund? How do we get assets building this fund?

The paper proposes a number of approaches to that. One is leveraged purchases, meaning that the government will basically borrow money and then use the money to buy assets and since the interest rate on government debt is lower than the rate of return that you generally get by investing in the stock market or similar, they could take advantage of that spread and make money.

Another approach is called monetary seniorage. The basic idea is right now, when the Federal Reserve wants to increase the money supply, what it does is it creates new money, and it goes out and buys treasury bonds. Instead of buying treasury bonds, it could go out and buy any sort of asset including stocks, bonds, real estate. In fact, the Bank of Japan has been doing this with their central bank for the last 10 years or so.

Finally, taxes, good old fashioned taxes. I have all sorts of taxes. Taxes on initial public offerings when a company goes public, taxes on mergers and acquisitions, taxes on fund management, financial transactions taxes, et cetera, et cetera. Basically, targeted taxes on the wealthy, the revenues which could go to fill up this fund then create assets that we all own an equal share of.

Jim: Now, you used the Alaska Permanent Fund as a general model for the American Solidarity Fund. Revenue there comes specifically from oil in the state, but as far as, once the fund’s in place, they invest that, people get the dividend, very similar model.

But one potential distinction between the two is how fund investments might be used to influence corporate behavior. The Alaska Permanent Fund is completely passive. The shareholder voting rights conferred by their investments are not used at all. But for the American Solidarity Fund, you suggest that those voting rights could potentially be used to exercise public influence, either by representative voting or more directly by some manner of popular proxy voting. What motivated you to include that design component in your proposal?

Matt: You’re right. I believe that Alaska doesn’t take a very activist stance with its holdings, I’m not sure if it ever votes on shares, or if it ever has negotiations with company directors, but the Norwegian Fund or funds that I covered in the paper, they take the opposite approach. The Government Pension Fund Global, which is their big $1 trillion wealth fund, they vote on almost all the shareholder votes. They have thousands of meetings a years with company directors, trying to influence company behavior so I adopted that model.

As to why, my goal in this is not just to reduce wealth inequality, is not just to reduce income inequality through the basic dividend, but also to socialize control of companies to some degree. If this fund doesn’t vote its shares, then you have to ask yourself, “Well, what shares are going to be voted,” and the shares that are going to be voted are whichever ones are still held by private owners. Realistically, the private owners of financial assets and especially shares, those private owners are very affluent people. I’m trying to counteract their influence over our economy and make it to where we have more social control over the economy, in addition to leveling out wealth inequality and leveling out income inequality.

Jim: Something you just touched on, which is I would say fairly unusual about your proposal, is that you are aiming to tackle wealth inequality, not just income inequality. In my experience, people’s understanding of wealth inequality, and how that differs from income inequality is often quite limited, even amongst those who work on these sorts of issues. I realize this could probably take an entire episode in itself, but can you briefly talk about that distinction, why it matters, and what implications it has for policy design?

Matt: Yes. I think you’re right that oftentimes, actually, you’ll find people use the word wealth and income interchangeably or they’ll use rich and wealthy interchangeably, even though these are somewhat different concepts. In broad strokes, wealth is what’s in your bank account, if you will, and income is what’s in your paycheck. Or another way to put it as wealth is the stock of things you own and income is the flow of money that you get on a periodic basis.

The importance of wealth inequality, there’s so many things that are important about it, but broadly speaking, wealth equates to power in the economy. Whenever people are appointing boards of directors on companies, the way that works is the shareholders get to do that. Well, who owns shares in US companies? If you look at Federal Reserve Surveys, they show that around 90% of company shares are owned by the top 10% of Americans.

This is a huge layer of basically societal management that’s occurring at the corporate board level. We have thousands of companies and tens of thousands of board members, and they’re managing production on a day to day basis. Who appoints those managers? The really relatively small slice of the public, the wealthiest people in the country.

If you have a more egalitarian mindset, you got to be focused not just on making sure people have enough money to buy basic necessities and food and housing, but also, you want to try to shift power in the economy so that the direction of the economy is not being governed by a small slice of people. For that, you also have to make sure wealth gets spread out, and so the social wealth fund is my approach at doing that.

Jim: Unlike most other proposals that aim towards some universal basic income, which is what you see this could potentially reach if enough wealth were moved into the fund, when the income is taking the form of dividends from a collectively owned asset pool, you have more potential to instill a sense of ownership amongst people than if it’s just a regular transfer. I know that’s something that was important in your proposal — can you say what role you see that playing if this policy is enacted?

Matt: Yes. One of the things that you have to think about when designing any kind of program in a democratic country is the recognition that at some future point, the government is going to be controlled by the other side. Whatever side you happen to be on, it’s going to be controlled by the other side. You have to design programs that are going to be sticky or resilient in the face of government that maybe does not like them.

Social Security is a good example of that. Republican thought leaders and the think tanks, they often write very negatively about Social Security, but you notice when they get in power, they don’t ever seem to do a whole lot about it. The dividend structure and the wealth fund structure is designed with that in mind because the idea is if you give people a share of this fund, if you say, “Look, you own one share of the American solidarity fund” and in the paper we even marked up an app where you can see your share, and you can watch it grow over time, just like you might check your 401(k) or whatever.

If you get it in their hands and impress upon them that this is your wealth, you own it, then I think it becomes a lot harder for someone to come around and take it from them because then at that point, it feels like you’re being stolen from. Like a cut in a basic income that’s more conventional basic income policy, it’s just like, “Well, that’s a cut in benefits.” Or a cut in taxes, say, “Well, that’s just a cut in taxes,” But taking my dividend, taking my share of ownership, you are stealing from me or legitimately taking an asset from me that I own. I think that’s going to be a lot harder to pull off for politicians that care about public approval.

Jim: I’m curious, particularly in your choice of naming for the fund, calling it the Solidarity Fund. Is that a component you also see with the ownership aspect, that this is something that would make people feel like they’re more tied together with one another?

Matt: Yes. I chose the name for a number of reasons. There’s a French fund and tax that uses the word solidarity or the French equivalent of it. That was motivating, but also generally, the idea of solidarity is we’re all in this together, we’re all going to share. An injury to one is an injury to all. It’s trying to conjure up that notion, which is different if you want to go back to the French Revolution slogans of equality, fraternity, liberty. It conjures up that fraternal notion of like a collective enterprise that we’re all part of. As opposed to a more atomized understanding of an individual entitlement that is separate from a collective enterprise.

Jim: With the release of this proposal, not everyone has immediately loved it. You’ve had a few people who have raised concerns and critiques. What have been some of the most common pushbacks that you’ve gotten on the proposal? Are there some of them that you think have merit? If not, what are the ones you’re getting that don’t make sense, for whatever reason?

Matt: It’s a little hard to categorize all of them. I would say, a good critique that is in most of the criticisms or implied in most of the criticisms is that this is not the most important issue. The US, we still have 30 million people who don’t have health insurance, for instance. That’s a more pressing issue, if you will, than this. I would tend to agree with that. We have a lot of issues that are perhaps more important than getting a fund built, but I never said it’s the most important policy, I guess, would be my response to that.

It partially depends on how you understand the proposal. If you understand it as a more socialistic proposal because it does have its roots in market socialist thought, then if you’re anti-socialist, if you’re libertarian, if you don’t like the idea of having a big social owner who has power to some degree over the economy, then you don’t like it for that reason, of course, and you say, “Hey, why do we need to socialize the ownership of a bunch of wealth? Can’t we just use taxes and transfers and leave ownership in private hands as it already is?”

That’s just an ideological critique. We can agree to disagree on whether a private ownership is the best model for how wealth should be controlled in the economy. If you understand it as a kind of a market capitalist Frankenstein creature, if you will, and you’re very left wing, you might say, “This is a sellout. We need real socialism, and this is not real socialism.” I’ve certainly got my fair share of that online.

It is an interesting proposal in some ways because it does straddle the line. If you want to look at it a certain way, you can say, “Hey, this is advocating that wealth be socialized into a central fund that everyone owns. Isn’t that collective ownership of the means of production? Isn’t that what Marx is going on about?” You can also look and say, “Hey, this is just a mutual fund. This is just shares, this is just finance and financial assets. Isn’t that what capitalists and libertarians, isn’t that what they’re all about?” You can view it how you want to view it. I found people who have viewed it both ways and therefore it’s gotten attacks from the left and attacks from the right, based on this different way of looking at it, depending on how you twist your head.

Jim: I will just say, following the conversation online, I’ve seen both of those attacks as well. So now that this proposal is out there, what do you see as the next steps for how this policy can move forward?

Matt: Realistically, the way a think tank proposal makes waves is you get a politician to adopt it. We’re going to have a pretty new Congress coming up soon. It seems a lot of seats are going to change hands and a lot of new people are going to come in, especially Democrats. I don’t expect any Republicans are going to be interested in this proposal. Depending on the ambitiousness of some of them, and who’s looking for fresh ideas, fresh things to associate themselves with, maybe I can get one of them to pick it up and maybe I can get one of the existing politicians to pick it up.

That’s the basic move from this point. It’s been covered in a lot of media outlets, it’s out there in the policy wonk sphere such as it exists in DC, and the only step forward really is getting a politician behind it. I suppose the other alternative is some vast movement, but I don’t think I’m capable of leading something like that. That’s where I’m focused at this point is finding a friendly politician who wants to do something bold and seeing if they’ll adopt the ideas their own.

Jim: Well, Matt, those are all the questions that I had. Anything else you’d like to add?

Matt: Yes, I guess it’s worth mentioning if we didn’t cover it already that there’s a distinction between people who want to use basic income to replace the welfare state and people who see it as a supplement to the welfare state. I view a basic dividends in the second pot. The goal of the basic dividend is not to replace Social Security or public health care or things like that, it’s to compliment it.

That’s in part why I’m trying to get the money from capital income as opposed to trying to redirect existing tax income. I know that’s a big tension in this world and so this is more on that side. The UBI as supplement as opposed to UBI as replacement.

Owen: That was Jim Pugh and Matt Bruenig on the Basic Income Podcast. One thing I found fascinating about that was just in how much policy making you can do within revenue generation and the details of the fund itself. It’s not just come up with money from somewhere. You can really in some ways remake the country or a significant portion of it through how you collect that money and distribute it.

Jim: I think that’s absolutely true, and I think it’s an area that people have not actually spent nearly as much time as they should because, as you say, where money comes from — that can be as important as what you’re doing with it. When we talk about these ambitious new proposals that Bernie Sanders and other folks are throwing out there, the conversation is almost never on that.

There’s these few main buckets of, “We’ll take the money from rich people or from corporations.” Maybe that’s higher income taxes, maybe that’s higher corporate taxes, but there isn’t much thinking generally, at least that has made it up into the bigger conversation, about some of these more creative approaches for how we might fund the big things and also how we might tap into the massive wealth that’s out there.

Owen: I really like his concept of everyone having a share because it provides that sense of ownership. Just with the recent examples of Finland and Ontario both of– with Finland trial supposedly not going to continue past its current plan and Ontario may be canceled at some point soon. Both of those are just because a government that was not sympathetic to basic income came in. When he was started talking about how you have to plan for when a government that doesn’t like this plan takes power because that will inevitably happen, the fund itself or whatever it is has to be politically resilient enough. I liked how much thought he put into that.

Jim: I think that points to something, which often gets overlooked in policy conversations. Which is that when you’re designing a policy, you can’t just be thinking about the immediate economics. If you really want something that’s going to stand up in the modern political context, you need to be thinking about what are the politics of the day? How is this going to proceed? What is the psychology people are going to have as a result of this policy? Those are all really important factors if you’re going to actually be able to create something, A, that passes, and B, as you say, that doesn’t get torn away when something shifts with the political winds.

Owen: I just thought it was a good reminder because my general attitude has been like, “Well, once people are getting money that’s going to be incredibly popular,” but we saw in our episode with Bill Wielechowski in Alaska that he’s saying, “Yes, getting money is popular, but that fund is always under threat,” the Alaska Permanent Fund. Yes, the popularity of the program is what sustained it up until now, but it is something that you can’t just take for granted.

Jim: I also thought it was really important that Matt shared his views around how this is tackling wealth inequality beyond just income inequality and income insecurity. That is something that I think needs– I think there’s a lot of value in having that be part of the basic income conversation, to a large degree because a lot of the push-back that we’ve had around basic income from– at least from folks on the left, is that this isn’t actually tackling underlying dynamics with the way our economy works today.

If this is just papering over a lot of these underlying issues of who is making the decisions in our country, then the basic income alone may be treating symptoms and not actually the roots of it. Tackling something like wealth inequality may move us in that direction and may allow us to then build alliances with a lot more folks who are concerned about that.

Owen: I thought he made an excellent point that income and wealth are often used interchangeably when it’s really not true and that so much of the value, the money out there would be considered wealth instead of income. To address inequality itself, the actual inequality between people you do need to not just go after income but also go after wealth. I appreciated his proposal for that as well.

Jim: One last thing: I thought it was good towards the end of the conversation that this came up that Matt himself admits this isn’t supposed to solve all the problems. This is a policy that potentially could be pretty transformative, but on its own, it’s not going to make everything work and in fact, may not be the most high priority policy in this moment. Something like universal healthcare, you could very well argue that that is a more urgent thing to be pushing for in this moment, but that this could do a lot of good and that it could set us up in the future to be able to better figure out where we go from there.

I think that’s something so often in policy debates, we pigeonhole ourselves or our opposition with saying, “Does your policy do everything? No, all right, well, we shouldn’t talk about that let’s move on the next thing.” I think instead we should say, “Does this help people and does this position us to do more?” I think from that respects, I feel like the social wealth does have a ton of potential here.

Owen: Alright, that’ll do it for this episode of the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. Please rate us, review us, and subscribe on the podcast service of your choice, and tell your friends. We’re always looking for more people to join in this conversation. See you next week.

An Update on the Basic Income Trials in Kenya, feat. Joe Huston

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
An Update on the Basic Income Trials in Kenya, feat. Joe Huston

GiveDirectly has been doing some of the biggest, most groundbreaking work in basic income and cash transfers. One of the first episodes of this podcast featured GiveDirectly CFO Joe Huston, and we invited him back on to discuss their village-wide basic income trials in Kenya, their work with Ugandan refugees, a new project in Liberia and with hurricane relief efforts in Texas and Puerto Rico. Joe discusses the promises and challenges of working in these different contexts.


Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh. Almost two years ago, in one of our early episodes, we talked to Joe Huston. He’s the CFO over at GiveDirectly. He was telling us about GiveDirectly’s basic income experiment that they were getting ready to launch in Kenya at that point. Given it’s been so long, we thought it would be good to catch up with Joe and see how things were progressing so far with the pilot.

Owen: I spoke to Joe Huston about how things are going and some of the new work that GiveDirectly is doing. Here’s my conversation with Joe Huston at GiveDirectly.

Alright, Joe Huston, thank you for joining us on the podcast.

Joe: Thank you, guys, for having me back.

Owen: This will be a review for some of our listeners, but could you just start by giving a quick overview of GiveDirectly’s Village Pilot Program and what stage it’s in right now?

Joe: Yes. GiveDirectly in general only ever does one thing. It delivers unconditional cash transfers. Then along the way, as we’re delivering those cash transfers, something we’re often doing is testing how they work. Do they work at all? Do particular structures for particular types of people work better or worse than other structures? We’re constantly experimenting with different types of cash transfers.

As we saw the debate and conversation about basic income grow a lot over the last two years, we saw it as an opportunity for us to test a universal basic income. When we talked two years ago, we were at the very beginning stages of fundraising for that project and sketching out how it could work from a study perspective and what sizes the cash transfers would be and things like that. Since then, about two years ago, so a few months after we talked, we kicked off the first one-village pilot. This was one village with about 100 adults, each receiving monthly cash payments of about US$ 20, with the promise that those will continue going out for 12 years.

We’ve now been able to follow these people over the course of about two years of those monthly payments. In tandem, we continue to fundraise and work on the research designed for the full study. Enrollment for that full study, which will be over 20,000 adult recipients in over 200 villages, kicked off at the end of last year and wrapped up at the beginning of this year. We should have the first round of follow-up results something like early to mid next year, following up with people after a year of cash payments.

Owen: Great, generally, are things going as planned? Have you had to modify things as they go along or you’re pretty much sticking to the original design?

Joe: From a design perspective, things have largely gone as planned. One design question we got to test with the pilot was whether or not individually targeted payments would be seen as threatening to households. That was probably my biggest, almost operational implementation worry, that it would be seen as trying to pay each individual adult versus paying households or families as a group would be seen as like GiveDirectly is trying to shake up family structures or empower one person over another in a couple.

That was interesting to see it play out in the pilot: when we asked people if that was okay, their answer was that it was better, that it was nice, that people got to receive and spend their own money on the priorities they thought were most important. That it was helpful for family relations and things like that. That was a positive thing out of the pilot.

The main operational hiccup we saw was for the full study, because it’s fairly large, 20,000 people, more than 200 villages, 100 extra included as control group villages, we didn’t want to overlap with the Kenya national elections, which were scheduled for August last year. Basically, we didn’t want to get caught up in the campaigning period and confuse people about what we were doing and what the money was for and some things like that. We stopped a few months short of that August round of elections. Then they ended up having to redo the elections a few months later, so we had to pause our work for about five or six months or so.

That was the biggest operational hiccup which delayed us a bit. Otherwise, things are mostly proceeding as planned.

Owen: Gotcha. You mentioned the finding around couples that they don’t find this threatening to their family. Are there other findings you can share, either anecdotally or from the data you’re collecting?

Joe: Yes. I should caveat that most of what we’re learning so far is anecdotal. The full study, because of how it’s structured in terms of its sample size and that it has a control group, will be able to provide the most rigorous answers on all the questions we care about about a UBI. But from the pilot, it has been interesting to see a handful of things. Another question I was curious about which relates to comparing a UBI versus a negative income tax or other more targeted approaches to welfare cash systems, was how people would perceive a universal basic income.

This is a village where in absolute terms, on average people are very, very poor. But there’s still a decent amount of income inequality. The richest person has a greenhouse, and the poorest person has a family in one room with a house that’s falling over, to give you a sense that there’s still pretty meaningful ranges of wealth and income. We asked people whether it seemed fair that everyone was receiving the same amount regardless of need, that GiveDirectly wasn’t doing any attempt to try to suss out need.

The reaction from people was pretty interesting, that they thought it was better that GiveDirectly not meddle and try to pick winners and losers, that that was fair or more likely to be correct in their eyes, and also better for community relations. That was funny, and interesting to see and relevant for the broader conversations with the UBI.

Related to that, another thing I’ve seen is conversations about the payments and how different people are using them and how people can pull them together are just immediately a little bit less awkward than in programs where GiveDirectly, for whatever reason, has targeted specific individuals within a community. There’s this dynamic that everyone knows that everyone is receiving, and so it’s a lot easier to talk about the issue.

We’ve seen people do things like form savings groups, as an example, where you can imagine writing down a ledger where every month people contribute some portion of their transfer that they’re getting from GiveDirectly. Then every month, one person gets a big payout equal to the sum of all those portions of transfers. It’s a way to turn stream payments into lump sums, so it’s a way of savings. We saw those crop up basically instantly after announcing the program. I wonder how fast that would have developed if we had gone with a more targeted or means tested approach.

Owen: That gets into something I wanted to ask you about, which is if you’re seeing these village-wide effects or synergistic effects of everyone getting it and whether that’s on the economy of the entire village or group projects like the one you’ve described. Are there any more you can share?

Joe: From what I’ve seen so far, it has been mostly those savings groups. Basically, every demographic within this village has created one. The more elderly women, the young people, and so there has been a lot of trust-based savings groups pop up. I haven’t seen as much pulling together in infrastructure or something like that, but that’s definitely something we’ll want to keep watching for both in the village and in the full study.

Owen: I know it’s a little early to say, but do you think this pilot program has affected the basic income conversation more broadly and/or the charitable giving world in a new way that your work hadn’t before?

Joe: I think for the basic income conversation, something we’ve been trying to do, and maybe you guys can tell us how we’re doing, is there aren’t that many people receiving a basic income. Both with the pilot recipients and with GiveDirectly’s other UBI recipients, we’ve been trying to amplify their voices, ask them, “Okay, there’s this academic debate about whether a basic income should be universal, what do you think?” Or, “Should we target individual adults or families? What do you think?” Or, “How are you spending that?”

So much of the debate is very philosophical or theoretical, and we’re in a unique position to give some of the only basic income recipients out there a microphone to ask them, what do you think about these different debates? When we’ve written about the pilot, that has been a big goal of ours, and you can also, on our website, on GDLive, filter for UBI recipients and just hear how they’re describing their priorities, spending, and things like that which I think is a pretty cool perspective to bring to a debate that otherwise feels like a broader political philosophy debate or something like that.

I think that has been good. The other push we’ve been doing which compliments that push is trying to frame the debate around the evidence, which has two prongs. The first one is so much of the questions and assertions about basic income apply to cash transfers broadly. People on the pessimists side are worried that people will stop working or start drinking or spend poorly. We actually have a remarkable amount of evidence on recipients of cash transfers. doing not those things and tons of randomized control trials from all over the world. That’s a largely tested question. It’s largely played out that people don’t end up doing those things people are worried about.

People also have a lot of hopes for a basic income, that the money could get spent on businesses or schooling or health expenditure or whatever it is. We have a lot of evidence on those things as well, testing different structures of cash with different types of outcomes. The first prong of what we’ve been trying to do is contextualize the debate about basic income in terms of what priors we should have, given everything we know about cash transfers broadly, which is there’s a pretty good bet here in terms of at least the household level affects of giving people cash. That leads to the second prong, which is what are we actually testing here? What is unknown about a basic income? Which is often a little bit different from the questions that dominate the conversation; spending on alcohol or whatever it is.

Owen: Yes, your website is a really fantastic resource, both for the evidence and also those anecdotes about how it’s affecting real lives. GiveDirectly is expanding their work in some interesting ways. I want to touch on a few of those. Can you tell us about the work you’re doing with Ugandan refugees?

Joe: Yes. What’s neat about cash transfers, which applies to basic income, but also broadly, is that it can help force a policy question which is, in general, we have a policy goal of helping a certain group of people and because we care about it, we’ve attached a budget to it. Maybe it’s $1 billion a year or something like that. Are our efforts better than what the people we’re trying to help could do if we just gave them the money instead?

We’ve done a few different versions of that in more development contexts. We worked in post-hurricane Texas and Puerto Rico, which tested in a different type of context. The context for how we help refugees is very, very similar, where a lot of our systems for helping refugees globally were set up post World War Two and were set up for refugee crises that were fairly different from the crises we deal with today.

Uganda, you may or may not know, has taken in a ton of refugees, more in total than all of Europe did last year, from places like South Sudan and the DRC. With these types of crises, people end up staying for a decade or more. These are very prolonged crises, and as a result, people are often starting their new lives in a refugee resettlement versus being somewhere temporarily before moving on.

Our model for helping those people is matched to a older, more acute crisis model. We’re very good at keeping people alive with shelter or food or things like that, but not as good at launching people, giving them the resources they need to make big investments in their new lives. Something we’ve been testing in Uganda is giving people large grants. $750 to $1,000, as usual letting them spending on whatever they want, and seeing how that plays out. We kicked off a pilot at the beginning of this year, with about a few thousand refugees in one settlement in Uganda. We’re gearing up for a larger experimental evaluation with more than 10,000 refugees testing the same basic model there.

Owen: Also, you mentioned Texas and Puerto Rico in their hurricane recovery efforts. This is a different context than you’re usually working in. Usually it’s with these very poor villages where $20 a month goes very far, whereas Texas, that’s not necessarily the case. Can you tell us a little bit about why you chose to work there and any results you can share?

Joe: Yes. We chose to work in Texas and then in Puerto Rico once Maria hit, because one, you could see everywhere on TV and the news the devastation that the Hurricanes caused. What was encouraging was that a lot of people wanted to help. There was this groundswell of support and a pretty strong eagerness to try to help out, especially for Americans to help out fellow Americans.

Then what was interesting is that there was also a lot of frustration with the ways that those people had to help. This was a time when people were expressing a lot of frustration about the Red Cross. It felt like an opportunity to at least provide a proof of concept, that one model for helping these people is you could just send them cash and they could buy what they wanted. I think especially for the disaster-relief industry or context that’s helpful. When I went to Texas there were warehouses filling up with goods that were being sent to help people. Whether it was canned goods, or I saw industrial-sized bottles of lotion. Somebody had shipped a couch from Wyoming.

Our traditional model of helping these people is very much sending stuff and that might make a lot of sense in the initial 72 hours after a disaster, but after that, often stores are opening up, ATM machines are opening up and people have pretty varied needs. It’s a good opportunity just to provide a proof of concept there.

We ended up delivering debit cards to people in Texas and Puerto Rico of about $1,500. I think the results were interesting. You’re right that a dollar goes a lot less far in Texas or Puerto Rico. The role of that $1,500 I think was different than the role either of basic income or a lump sum grant plays in East Africa. What I saw it being was much more of a gap filler. That people had access to different types of support, whether it’s immediate support from the Red Cross or FEMA down the road or support from family members.

After all that support, there is often little things falling through the gaps. Whether it was somebody needed new clothes or they wanted to buy a washer-dryer or needed to get a head start on their home and so needed construction materials. That unconditional cash played a pretty good role because people could put it wherever they needed it. The main takeaway we saw from asking people about what they were spending on and things like that was, even with everyone experiencing the same crisis, how varied the spending patterns were across people, which I think demonstrates a lot of the value of cash, that it’s enabling that type of flexibility.

Owen: What was the public reaction to working in a more developed country?

Joe: One thing that was interesting was we have a lot of practice, and we talked about this last time, introducing ourselves to the communities where we’re working in East Africa. I think we weren’t exactly sure how we’d be received in East Texas or in Puerto Rico. It was funny to see how many of the same issues cropped up, that handing out cash is weird, and people think it is going to be a scam. You have to take the same type of tactics, whether it’s introducing yourself through the Mayor’s office or through the local church or whatever it is. With my operations hat on that was the most interesting thing to see was how much of the same communication introduction strategies and respect for the communities that we have practiced a lot in East Africa were required to get people to accept us in Texas and Puerto Rico as well.

Owen: Yes, so basically building community support and then working from there?

Joe: Right, and how universal the weirdness of cash is.

Owen: Lastly, I want to give you a chance to touch on the work you just started doing in Liberia, getting back to Africa. You just started working there. Anything you can share about the unique challenges there or what made you decide, what made GiveDirectly decide to start working in Liberia?

Joe: Yes, I’ll be intentionally a little bit vague here but in Liberia and in a couple other countries we’re entering this year, DRC and Malawi, we’ve been working with one of the larger government aid funders. For them what we’ve been implementing is a very literal application of that question I said cash can help pose earlier: that we have this budget, are we outperforming just letting the people who are trying to help spend it? As a result with this funder we designed, I think something like six or seven randomized control trials across Rwanda, Liberia, Malawi, and DRC.

Testing different structures of cash with different populations and basically seeing in what areas are the programs we’ve chosen to invest in outperforming what the people can do themselves and in what areas are they not? Which is a pretty, I think, exciting use case for cash as a benchmark or tool for large aid funders. That’s what brought us to Liberia in the first place. Liberia I think is one of the more challenging payments environments we worked in. Weirdly maybe after the US because we benefit a lot from mobile money in the other places where we’ve worked. I think the initial challenges in Liberia have been us working through how it will make sense to pay people.

These are environments where many of the roads are impassable for large periods of the year because of the rainy season. While we’ve dealt with different types of remoteness in the past, this has been a more extreme challenge of that. I’m curious and excited to see how we experiment and test with different payment modes as part of delivering cash there.

Owen: Those are the questions I had for you. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Joe: I would give a plug for searching UBI on our website at GDLive and just seeing what basic income recipients are saying about their experience. That’s a pretty cool opportunity and it’s, frankly, also just fun.

Jim: That was Owen Poindexter talking to Joe Houston from GiveDirectly.

Owen: I always find it interesting, the logistics of cash transfers, and also the basic question of what are they good for? If anything, what are they not good for as a default in terms of aid and charitable giving? Does it beat other forms of helping people? I think by and large it does.

Jim: I feel like there has been solid evidence for a while now that cash in at least certain situations adds more value, no pun intended, than a lot of the traditional in-kind approaches to supporting a people.

One thing that I continue to be surprised by is that on one hand, it seems like, we’ve actually done a lot of experiments, now we’ve done these pilots, we have a good sense of what will happen. Yet every time someone does a new one, it seems like there’s still new insights that we gain. There’s still more about the space that we’re being able to understand as we continue with these pilots and with these experiments.

Owen: Yes. Along those lines, I always find that cash works even better than I think it’s going to. One example of that was the one that Joe gave about, will this affect social structures in the village? That was an issue in the US when they were doing trials in the ’70s. You think it could really threaten the social fabric if you give people a new level of independence. From what he said, everyone prefers it this way, that individual adults each get their cash transfer.

Jim: Yes. I thought the takeaways so far or at least the observations so far around universality were particularly interesting, because that is the thing here that is new. That if you look at the existing pilots to date, there has been almost no saturation studies. The fact that they are doing this universally at the village level, from the get-go, the idea was that’s going to help us to better understand and learn more about those effects.

Yes, like you said, I thought it was really, really interesting to see what the reactions on that were so far and that they’re– at least in the context of these Kenyan villages, people really seem to appreciate the universality. What can we extrapolate from that, as far as understanding how folks elsewhere might or might not perceive it the same way?

Owen: I’m hoping that all these questions that GiveDirectly is asking make their way more and more into the charitable aid world generally. The question he kept bringing up of, “Is cash an improvement on what else we might be doing for these people?” I think it takes a lot of keeping your ego in check. If you’re an organization that gives cows or mosquito nets or clothing or whatever it is, to ask yourself, would we be just better off giving people money?

Yes, in some cases, I’m sure there are cases where a mosquito net is more valuable than the cash it costs, but I think in a lot of cases people will have to ask themselves the question that’s threatening to the organization.

Jim: Right. It seems like that is a process that has been happening for a decade now. You’re starting to see some of these more traditional organizations gradually get more on board with that. The fact that the Red Cross is now using cash as part of its way of supporting people and families in struggling situations. We’re on a gradual curve of adoption, and there will probably still be resistance from some fronts for quite a while, but, hopefully, less and less over time.

Owen: That’ll do it for this episode of the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. Please subscribe on Apple Podcasts and leave us a rating and review if you can there or on the service of your choice. And please tell your friends so we can keep expanding this conversation. See you next week.

The Humans of Basic Income Project, feat. Ontario Activist Jessie Golem

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
The Humans of Basic Income Project, feat. Ontario Activist Jessie Golem

Recently, as our listeners will know, the new administration in Ontario, Canada, announced that they will cancel the ongoing basic income trials there. In response, Jessie Golem, a photographer and basic income recipient, started a project called Humans of Basic Income (@HumansBasic on Twitter). Golem takes portraits of other basic income recipients in Ontario holding up handwritten signs describing what basic income has meant to them. The project both humanizes the basic income program and argues for it to continue. Jim spoke with Jessie Golem about the Ontario program and the Humans of Basic Income project.


Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh.

Owen: Recently, as listeners of this podcast will know, the Ontario Basic Income trials– there was announcement that they would be canceled. Now as of now, we have no details about when or how that’s going to happen, and so the recipients of basic income are pretty much left in limbo, wondering if they’re going to get their payment next month, next year, and so on. Since the announcement, a photographer, named Jessie Golem, started a project called Humans of Basic Income, in which she takes photos of basic income recipients in Ontario holding up a sign with a sentence or two about what basic income has meant to them. Since then, the project has completely taken off.

Jim: I had a chance to sit down with Jessie and talk to her about her experiences with this project and where she sees it going.

Owen: Here’s Jim and Jessie Golem on the Basic Income Podcast.

Jim: Jessie, thanks so much for joining us on the podcast.

Jessie: Awesome. I’m excited.

Jim: Now, you run the Humans of Basic Income project, which is telling stories of participants in the Ontario Basic Income Pilot. Beyond that, you’re actually enrolled in the program yourself, correct?

Jessie: Yes, that is correct.

Jim: Can you tell us a bit about what your experience has been before and during the pilot?

Jessie: Yes, I worked four jobs before signing up for the pilot. I signed up in December, and I found out I got approved in February. I was working four jobs. It’s basically like I was up early in the morning and just working nonstop between all of my jobs and not really having time to make meals for myself or I’m just going home just to sleep and shower and that’s it and nothing else. It was just a very, very exhausting and frustrating existence. I was also finding that I was still just barely scraping by and still living paycheck to paycheck, but still feeling like I didn’t have time and the opportunity to pursue the things I want to do or focus my energies into the jobs I want to be doing.

When I got basic income, I dropped down from four jobs to two jobs. Those two jobs was on both building and managing my own business as a freelance photographer, so advertising, booking photo projects, doing the thing I love, and also I’m the operations manager at Photographers Without Borders. That’s a rapidly growing organization and in itself, it is a full-time job. It needs the energy and time to devote to it and basic income was buying me that energy and time to devote to growing PWB.

Jim: Wow. That sounds like exciting stuff. It would be a very positive shift to be able to really focus your energies in that way. As I think all of our listeners know, last month, the new Progressive Conservative Government of Ontario announced that they were canceling the pilot, despite having promised that they would not do so during the election.

Jessie: That is correct.

Jim: What was your reaction to that?

Jessie: I was devastated. Before the pilot had gotten canceled, there’s actually a series that the Huffington Post is putting out called No Strings Attached, where they were following a couple of different people in Ontario on the Basic Income Pilot, and I was actually one of the subjects that they were going to be following. They produced a number of videos. One of the videos is out already, it’s really good. It’s about this couple in Lindsay that started their own business, and they hadn’t done my video yet.

I was literally– an hour before they made the cancellation, I was talking on Facebook with the editor at Huffington Post about planning the video and having the shoot ready and what we were going to do. Literally, an hour later, she messaged me and said, “They’re winding down the program. I’m really sorry,” and I felt like the rug was just pulled out from underneath me, and I was devastated and furious. My dad called me later that day because he found out and he was like, “Jessie, just be calm.” I just started crying because I was just so upset and so angry. I realized that I have this relationship with Huffington and I have a platform and I have this ability. I’m not going down without a fight. I want Doug Ford to know my name, and I want him to know how angry I am.

I wrote an opinion piece for Huffington Post. I did a number of radio interviews. Then I started contacting people in my city, which is Hamilton. I went to Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, and they ended up going to Queen’s Park where I participated in a press conference there. Somewhere along that line, I got the idea for the portrait series. This was both inspired by my work at Photographers Without Borders because our big mandate is amplifying people’s voices and using the power of visual storytelling to communicate change.

I recognize here that my story is just one story but there are 3,999 other stories out there of people who were using basic income to get themselves out of poverty or start new careers or go back to school or move into safer living or like so many really, really good things that would contribute to our society in a positive way. I realized I could tell those stories. Then, I just started reaching out on social media, putting call-outs on community groups on Facebook and everything.

As soon as I got a couple of portraits started and people could start to see what I was doing and see the vision of what I was doing, that’s when the ball started rolling. More people kept on coming forward to me and wanting to get their portrait taken. I would set up times where I would meet up with a group of people and take all their portraits or go to their places and meet them personally and take their portraits. It’s just kinda gotten the ball rolling from there and the momentum has been growing.

From there, I shared it on my personal Facebook, and then one of my friends got the idea of doing social media. We created a Facebook page and a Twitter account. I’ve been posting all the pictures on there and telling all these stories. The impact has been tremendous. It’s really taken a life of its own. It’s grown beyond me, which is beautiful to see.

Jim: I think, so often when you hear public conversations around basic income, it tends to be more mired in the economics and larger systemic view of things.

Jessie: Very policy-oriented.

Jim: Exactly. I think part of that is because, in general, up until now it has been more of a hypothetical. You don’t actually have these real cases. I would say, personally, it’s inspiring me to see actually, “Oh, this is a human policy. This is actually affecting people’s lives and actually–”

Jessie: We’re directly negatively affected by this cancellation because they had plans. There were people I’ve met who have had three-year plans that were going to use this money to do this, that, or the other, but now, those plans are suddenly canceled. The other thing I need to point out is that the Conservative government hasn’t communicated anything to anyone. Like I said, I found out because of the editor of Huffington Post told me. Nobody got any letter in the mail, nobody got an email or a phone call, nothing.

Nobody knows what this looks like moving forward. When they say that– the Conservative government keeps on saying that they’re going to do a compassionate wind-down but leaving 4,000 people completely in the dark wondering, “Am I going to get money this month? I don’t know.” They’re terrified because they’re depending on it. It’s not compassionate, it’s evil. It’s horrible.

Jim: It’s almost the exact opposite, going from actually full security to suddenly complete insecurity as to where your life will be in a week or a month.

Jessie: Yes, exactly, and not giving anybody any adequate time to plan for what happens next. I know for myself, I haven’t had a moment to think about what is plan B. I haven’t thought about plan B yet, and partly because I’ve been so busy doing this portrait series, but I also think emotionally for me, part of doing the portrait series is avoiding having to think about plan B and think about the reality that the Conservative government has forced me into.

Jim: Now, as you’ve talked to other basic income recipients, have there been things that have stood out in your conversations? Anything that surprised you or seemed particularly noteworthy?

Jessie: Yes, it’s honestly been one of the most heartbreaking photo series I have ever done. Everybody I have talked to has all expressed about the sense of helplessness and fury about what’s happened and like, “Well, what can we do now? We can’t speak up.” When I’m coming to them and saying, “Hold this sign. Write your story on it,” it’s giving them a voice. People have been really thankful that I’ve been coming to them.

I had one encounter that was particularly heartbreaking. It was an older gentleman and after I took his picture, he just– a few minutes, I was working with some other people getting their portraits, and he just shuffled up to me, and he was like, “Jesse, I have a question. I’m really afraid of the answer.” He looks genuinely afraid. There’s this older man fellow talking to me, and then he’s like, “Am I going to get this month’s payments?” Just that kind of fear and that really struck me because I was just like, “Wow, we’re all in the same boat.” I had to look at him and say, “I think we are, but I don’t know.” To have to say that to him was really, really heartbreaking.

There were other people. Actually, a person who– actually, outside of all this, she’s a very good friend of mine. She was studying. She’s going to school for manual therapy and osteopathy, but she’s also working as a bartender. It’s like she’s working all night and closing up bars and then waking bright and early and going to school all week. To have to return to that life is going to be exhausting for her. I also know another person I met is living in a motel. She is washing her dishes out of her bathroom sink and doesn’t have– it’s just not an adequate living situation whatsoever.

She was saying, “Thank God, I was going to get an apartment, and if I had gotten an apartment, I would be homeless right now.”

Jim: Wow. That is intense.

Jessie: To see that and to be encountered like this is, this is what poverty in Canada looks like. This had an opportunity to get this small group of people out of poverty, and you’re just taking it away without any– any of the reasons that they are using to justify doesn’t have any research or citation to back it up. There isn’t actually a reason, and they aren’t providing us any information.

Jim: Now, I realized that you may not have had a whole lot of time to figure this out. I’m curious, do you have a sense at this point as to where you hope this project will go in the shorter and maybe longer term?

Jessie: I’m hoping that it changes public opinion. I’m hoping that in the long term, it opens up a very real conversation about poverty and the stigma around poverty. A big thing I’ve noticed especially advocating for basic income and doing this project is that there’s a lot of very dehumanizing vernacular when it comes to talking about people in poverty. People have called me a parasite or a leech or saying that I’m stealing taxpayers’ money. That kind of language, it’s dehumanizing in a sense that you aren’t a human, you’re a parasite, you’re a leech, and your humanity is only dependent on your ability to economically contribute to the society.

I’m hoping by bringing these stories forward and saying, “These people are working. I am working. I’m managing a rapidly growing international not-for-profit.” I’d like to think that the work I’m doing is good and justifiable work. Other people are working and were using this to better their lives. They aren’t using it as an excuse to be lazy or sit around and play video games all day or whatever it is. It was an opportunity, not an excuse to build and better their lives.

I’m hoping that helps to change the stigma and change the conversation because especially in these times when we have people like Doug Ford or Donald Trump in positions of power that utilize tactics of fear and misinformation and ignorance and propaganda to further their agendas, I feel like that kind of vernacular is very divisive and polarizing and can be very dangerous in the long run, and very violent. I want to be able to shift away from that.

Another goal of this is obviously, to get the pilot back or to get some sort of remuneration or compensation for the damages that are caused. I am working with people in Thunder Bay, Lindsay, and Hamilton in discussions about what a class action lawsuit would look like, which actually one was just filed yesterday by four people in the city of Lindsay. We’re looking at that and also trying to put pressure both on the government, on the Conservative government so that this is widely denounced as a very bad and very unpopular move to bring it back or to see if the federal government would take up the project, which would be in everybody’s best interest.

Jim: I’ve been still impressed to see how much is happening there in response to that announcement. We had a chance to talk with Sheila Regehr a couple of weeks back, and she was talking about some of the things is in her work. That seems like a really big deal. There’s actually legal actions that’s moving ahead now as well.

Those were all the questions I had for you. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Jessie: Yes. I just want to say in terms of what you were saying about like you’re impressed with everything that’s happened, I think the biggest thing that would contribute to the success of this whole movement is that we maintain a united front. That’s what I’ve been trying to do in cooperating and collaborating with everybody is keeping everybody on the same lines of communication and saying that “We need to be united, we have the same goals. Let’s not fragment ourselves, because if we do, it won’t be successful. If we have one united front and we come to the government with one strong voice, then we can make a change.”

I’m seeing it happen right now with the exposure that it is getting and all of the attention that it is getting. I do feel cautiously optimistic for a positive outcome for this. Again, it is all about amplifying voices and the power of storytelling to create change. It’s been a huge blessing for me to be in a position to be able to amplify these voices and tell these stories in a platform where people are listening.

Owen: That was Jim Pugh and Jessie Golem on the Basic Income Podcast.

Jim: I would say Ontario is a fairly rare instance in the UBI space where just generally, we’re seeing more of the human side of basic income, because you’ve actually had recipients. And just seeing the pushback that’s come from there, I think that it has just broadly felt like there is– it’s more of a people issue.

But I think with Jessie’s project, that’s just being taken to next level. Like you’re actually seeing these first-hand accounts of how people’s lives were actually changed and what it will mean to them if this program was canceled. I think as we’ve talked about many times before, it’s hard to overstate what impact these sorts of stories I think could have on the basic income debate going forward.

Owen: Yes, it’s really true. I think when you have a program where it’s like, “We built a school, and we created a mentorship program,” and so on and so forth, that basically creates a story in your head without any more details. Or if you just say we gave someone money that feels like the first sentence, and we don’t know what happens after that, but you know Jessie’s project is showing what happens after that. It’s a lot of very uplifting results and hopefully, it can keep on.

Jim: I’m very curious to see as this grows, how elected officials are going to react if there is the potential that they may change their mind and particularly with this lawsuit as well. It seems like there are efforts from all fronts, so hopefully, they are able to change what happens. I’m also curious to see over the longer term how this affects the ways that different organizations decide to engage around basic income.

Certainly, in the US, my sense in Canada as well is there has been or at least had been still a lot of skepticism around the idea of unconditional cash and that it wasn’t necessarily a good way to support people. Now that we have these stories out there, it’ll be really interesting to see if folks there change their mind as well.

Owen: She is creating a lot of really good data points, just really humanizing the program because I think we’re often just waiting for the program to finish, the analysis to come and then some paper where we say, “Aha, look, great, positive results!” And that’s three years after the initial program began. And this is– it’s instant, it’s human, you look at the picture and you see right away. Even just looking at their faces, there’s something about just having that visual, you’d say, “Oh, of course, this person is– their life is made better by a little bit of income security.”

Jim: Right.

Owen: This makes it very intuitive.

Jim: Absolutely. As Jessie said, if folks want to be supporting now, a great way to do this is to be sharing new stories because they are being posted online. You can be sharing them on your social media as well, sending them to friends. If you’re not already, you can follow Humans of Basic Income on Twitter. It’s @HumansBasic, all one word, and see what stories have been posted and help get those stories out there.

Owen: Alright, that’ll do it for this episode of the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. Please rate and review us on Apple Podcast or the service of your choice and subscribe while you’re there if you’re not already. And tell your friends; we are always looking to bring more people into this conversation. We’ll talk to you next week.

Combining Basic Income with a Jobs Guarantee, feat. Alyssa Battistoni

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Combining Basic Income with a Jobs Guarantee, feat. Alyssa Battistoni

Basic income and jobs guarantee are often juxtaposed as two policies that are mutually exclusive, politically or policy-wise. Alyssa Battistoni, writing for In These Times, suggests that both are worth fighting for, and that the two policies could work in concert. Battistoni, a PhD student at Yale in Political Theory and editorial board member of Jacobin, spoke with Jim on how these two policies might work together.


Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh. Many of you have probably heard a lot recently about the idea of a job guarantee: a proposal where, rather than just giving people cash, the government would actually provide them with some sort of decent job that gives them a good wage and good benefits. There’s been more discussion about that from some Democratic candidates running for office, and the idea does seem to be picking up some steam.

Owen: Jim had a conversation with Alyssa Battistoni, a PhD student at Yale and contributor to Dissent, n+1, and Jacobin, on the idea that a jobs guarantee and a basic income are not necessarily mutually oppositional. Here’s Jim’s conversation with Alyssa Battistoni.

Jim: Alyssa, thanks for joining us on the podcast.

Alyssa: Thanks for having me.

Jim: There’s been an increasingly heated debate over the last few years between the ideas of universal basic income — providing everyone with unconditional cash at a level sufficient to bring them above the poverty line — and the idea of a job guarantee program, which would aim to provide a job with a living wage and decent benefits to any person in the country who wanted one. People generally seem to view these as two competing proposals for how to guarantee economic security to everyone.

You recently wrote a piece for In These Times that propose a combination of the two might actually be the best of both worlds. Can you walk us through your thinking there around the hybrid proposal?

Alyssa: Sure. As you say, the job guarantee/basic income debate has become a very contentious debate on the left, and these are rival ideas of how to solve the problem of unemployment, particularly after 2008 and the rise in unemployment that resulted. There are sometimes phrases: “full employment” as the job guarantee proposal or “full unemployment” being the UBI where people say, “There’s not work to do, we would we just make jobs?”

It’s always seemed to me that these are proposals that are trying to address the same problem essentially and that there are a lot of things that could be more complimentary, it doesn’t have to be completely opposed. I think there are a few ways to think about that. In the In These Times debate, there was one proposal for, one set of authors making a case for the job guarantee then another author making a case for basic income.

The case for basic income in that instance, this is Matt Bruenig arguing that UBI is a good thing. His version of the UBI is not intended as an income replacement or to be at the level of a full– to basically provide a full income to everybody. That’s premised on a more claim– the UBI is like a claim to public resources.

Obviously, the most famous example of this is the Alaska Permanent Fund, which always comes up in UBI debates. Matt Bruenig says everyone should have a claim to national resources of whatever kind. The most prominent examples are typically oil, gas, and mineral resources.

That’s actually something that I have a complaint with because I come to this from the prospect of thinking about environmental issues, climate change and wanting to use political economy and economic programs to address climate change. Thinking, I don’t want us to build a new set of universal social benefits on the back of fossil fuel. That seems like a bad idea to me.

But you could certainly imagine a version that was almost going the other direction, that I was trying to tax resource depletion or make other kinds of claims to public resources that aren’t necessarily extractive industries, up to and including things like– there’s been some proposals to do a version of that for the rents coming out of patents and things like government subsidies and so on. That would just be a more of everyone gets the money as a claim to public resources and you could pair that with some jobs program.

I also frankly think that you could just have a much more robust UBI that is actually an income replacement. If people really also wanted to work– job guarantee people say, “Well, people want to work, and we need to create jobs because everyone wants a job, and it’s good for people’s well-being.” I’m like, “Okay, if people want to work they can go get a job on top of their basic income.” That seems technically complementary possible.

The obvious problem is money: where these come from, how you do both. That is really the problem with certainly doing both UBI and job guarantee or with doing either comes in is the problem of politics and power and where we’re actually going to get those things for these both potentially quite radical transformative programs, how we can actually realize is a big question.

Jim: Yes. Definitely. I’m curious, what reactions have you gotten to your piece and to your proposal? Have you heard from both basic income and job guarantee proponents on how they feel about it?

Alyssa: On my argument that these can be complementary, I was pleasantly surprised, honestly, to mostly have people say they appreciated a perspective that was not as firmly in one camp or the other, that you can have some version that recognizes some of the complementarity. Part of that is also that neither is going to solve all the problems. For a while, there’s been UBI as the utopia that will fix all these problems, like Rutger Bregman’s book last year, Utopia For Realists, has this account of how a UBI will fix tons of problems from depression to climate change and so on. You see the same thing from the job guarantee folks a lot. It’s going to solve income inequality and racial disparity and all these things.

Both of them have the potential to make inroads and certainly policies matter, but frankly, I don’t think either of them is likely to just wipe away all the problems of contemporary American life and so we should take that into account. Certainly, the job guarantee idea is in ascendance on the policy left right now, and there’s been some proposals put out recently.

People have been amenable to particularly the environmental and climate critique of potentially– you have to be very careful what kinds of jobs you are creating and not just do a job creation and “any job is a good job” sense, which job guarantee is not necessarily saying, but the kind of language around just “jobs are good” can be the message. That, I think, is not a good message to be putting out. People recognize that they’re important points on both sides if you really make that case. I hope that we can do that.

Jim: Yes. I can certainly understand the appeal. If there are a lot of people out there who feel strongly that, “I don’t just want financial support. I need, I want to have a job. I want to have meaning, and I don’t have a path the one right now.” Then that certainly seems attractive from the perspective of a job guarantee because you are then guaranteeing it.

One concern I have—this actually is something that’s been raised by Matt Bruenig, and I’m curious if you have thoughts here. I do get the sense that there often are a conflation of two different programs in job guarantee discussions, at least, if not proposals: one being setting up the federal government as the Employer of Last Resort for anyone who can’t find a job, at least a job they like, in the private sector could always look to the government for work. Effectively a public option for jobs, and that’s where guarantee aspect of the program comes from.

The second being a large public works program, which if we’re talking about repairing crumbling infrastructure, tackling big projects that move us towards a green economy, generally important work that isn’t actually being handled through the private market today. So a new WPA, effectively. I think those both seem like really interesting proposals, but they also seem different because the Employer of Last Resort—inherently, if you have a guarantee, you can’t have a litmus test on experience or skills. Whereas if you want to take on big infrastructure, you probably do want people who have a lot of experience and skills if we’re actually going to do that right. I don’t know, is that something you’ve thought about? Do you have thoughts on that distinction?

Alyssa: Totally agree that that is an important distinction to make, and I also agree that that sometimes it’s conflated in discussions around job guarantee where it’s jobs programs that– it seems often there is an idea of a major jobs program that would also function as a job guarantee but also going above and beyond a job guarantee in many ways. Frankly, I have this feeling that there is a lot of work that doesn’t need to be done. We should figure out ways to move out of that and diminish work overall and let people have time for other things.

I also recognize that there’s a lot of work that we should be doing. I think actually quite a lot of that is, there’s both short-term jobs program, like short- to medium- term, like you said, infrastructural projects and things like that where you would want people who were committed to a project for the duration of the project. I also think there’s some very long-term jobs we might want to secure or work we want to make sure was done that the government was creating basically permanent jobs in or permanent work in, like a lot of the care proposals.

There’s been more recent job guarantee proposals: [the proposal] from Stephanie Kelton and Paulina Tcherneva has been very emphatic on care for people, planet, and communities, which I am totally on board with as modes of work. I think it’s very important to be supporting that work and giving decent jobs with decent wages and all that in that work.

I also think that that should be very long-term, not a tailored to cycles of the business cycle or job creation and unemployment or whatever. I want to just be like, “Okay, we’re just making a bunch of jobs, and they’re just going to be that and actually jobs that are good enough to crowd out a lot of private employment.”

I imagine there’s ways to design a job guarantee that has some overlap with a broader jobs program that could function together, but I do think sometimes the job guarantee has become the New Deal / WPA type thing, and I agree they seem like distinctive things, and I also would like to make sure that we– I think sometimes the job guarantee, in the less transformative versions of it, functions as a backstop to private sector job creation, and it’s one that does give people and workers more security certainly, more ability to demand higher wages and better jobs and so on. This doesn’t really control what kinds of jobs or seem to care what jobs are being created in the private sector.

If you think, as I do, that a lot of private sector jobs we don’t want to encourage, or we would like to replace private sector work with things that we think need doing like care for people and planet like that. It would be good to crowd out private sector employment in some respects. I think sometimes the job guarantee proposals I’ve seen or just like different ones have more or less of “This will stimulate private sector growth and employment and just be a place for people to hide out for a while while the private sector creates more jobs, and then they can get whatever job the private sector has created” versus “We have an economic and social agenda that we’ll try to– we’ll try to merge an economic and social agenda through the job guarantee.” I’m more favorable to that, but it’s certainly a more demanding proposal and one that I think goes beyond that base level.

Jim: Right, it does seem as though– while all of us are clearly thinking far beyond what is politically possible today, we do have our own internal thresholds, or it’s like, “Whoa, okay, no, that’s too big of an idea. Can’t have that combination or can’t have that particular approach.” I feel like there’s some interesting arguments that arise as a result of those different perspectives.

That was certainly also something that came up when I had my conversation with Jared Bernstein last year about his thinking on job guarantee is that he at times– and he recognized this during the conversation, but said, “We’re suspending political disbelief, but only to a point.” Where that leaves us is always interesting to see.

Alyssa: Yes, and it’s hard, because I think it’s important to have distant horizon utopian type ideas that are what we’re working towards and also some more pragmatic short-term view of how to get there. It’s one of the things that has been tricky in getting UBI off the ground, it seems to me, it feels like the left version of it feels so utopian, people can’t imagine how you would make it happen in the short term. it’s rethinking so much about work and production and how we expect that to function that it’s an easier sell politically in many ways to be like “Well, you get a job, and you contribute to society, and you get your good wage” and stuff like that.

I think there are ways to do that that are not totally just reinvesting in the dignity of work and work as the means to all social welfare that I think would be important to try to integrate into the job guarantee rhetoric. I also took the point that it’s hard to totally transform where people think about work and income very fast. That’s fair.

Jim: Right. With basic income, you’re not just talking policy change, you’re talking culture change.

Alyssa: Yes. Which I think needs to happen, but I also get that it will take a while and so figuring out ways to continue to not cede the ground of social rights and universal benefits and so on, while also recognizing that there is a long way to go to get– if anything, it sometimes seems like things that we’re retrenched since things like welfare reform and so on have demonized recipients of benefits as undeserving and so on.

Jim: On that note, you wrote explicitly in your article about the hybrid proposal that one of the main thing was that attracted you to basic income was that idea of separating livelihood from jobs. When I’ve talked to other basic income advocates, my strong sense is that is a powerful underlying driver for much of the support of the policy.

I think that maybe why there’s been such a strong negative response from many in the basic income space to the idea of the job guarantee program, because they do see that going in the opposite direction, and if folks — and I include myself in this as well — would like to see that conception of deservedness be decoupled from having paid jobs and that job guarantee is moving away from that, then that’s obviously a reason to not be supportive of the policy.

Then my question is, for the hybrid policy, let’s say that we could make this happen. I’m curious to get your thoughts in that scenario, do you think there would be then a natural shift towards separating deservedness from work or from paid jobs if that was an option for people or might we end up just entrenching these two camps of thought and we’d have the Sharks and Jets ongoing?

Alyssa: Yes. I definitely worry that the latter will happen, because it’s more politically palatable in the short term to do a kind of like “you get income if you do a job” thing, which people say everyone needs to do work, like it says in the piece. If the idea is everyone needs to contribute to society then that would be more like a mandatory work requirement program.

If you have a trust fund, you also have to get off your butt and go take care of the elderly or whatever, but it’s not that. It is explicitly to access livelihoods, you get a job and so that I do worry about. One of the things that I’ve been thinking is that there are certainly ways to structure for a job guarantee and basic income that oriented in different directions in terms of what vision of society it is holding up and aiming to achieve.

I do think that there are ways to try to use a job guarantee to put forth a different idea about what we think work is, how much work people should have to do, in a way that might be able to have a conception of work that’s more limited, that’s more widely distributed. I do think that that will be a political challenge.

Even if you have it like you have a reasonably, a lower reduced-hour work week or something and a high wage for reduced hours and increased leisure time and all of these things that have historically been part of Left approaches to work. You can have all of those things, but still, at the end of the day, to get access to these things and you have to have a job.

I still think that is a thing that we should try to– but that’s just going to be part of the job guarantee, so I do think that it’s very important to also be defending certainly what remains of welfare provision in the country, but I think also trying to advance that and to think about ways that we can increase access to unconditional benefits or even like semi-conditional benefits, like the child allowance is often discussed as a good kind of UBI adjacent policy. Obviously not everyone has a child and will unconditionally receive the child allowance, but just things that are increased social benefits.

One thing I mentioned in the piece that I also think is an interesting idea and have actually heard discussed very little in the US is the idea of universal basic services, which is people having access to public housing, free public transportation, and food stamps. A lot of the things that you actually need to live that you would have freely available.

I think it always can be helpful in solving some of the problems of the basic income, which are if you get X amount of money and then the private sector hikes up the cost of healthcare, housing so much that you can’t afford those things. This is one of the ongoing debates. If you just do in-kind service or good provision, people can still have the basics that they need to live whether or not it’s called income. Then that also seems compatible with a job guarantee. At the same time, it’s like– I still feel like at the end of the day, there are a lot of ways to try to make them more– to recognize that there are– to have a job guarantee that’s not just like “work is the greatest good of society.”

At the end of the day, I still think it’s crucial to insist that you shouldn’t have to have a job to be able to live and to have an income that you can live on, and all of that, and that your access to a livelihood. An economic mode that is premised on a lot of people not having access to a livelihood, that shouldn’t be at the basis of whether you’re able to live a decent life. I think it’s very important for the Left to insist on that, especially if we’re going for the job guarantee.

Jim: Your note on Universal Basic Services brings up an interesting point, which is beyond the question of deservedness, whether you have a job or not, one of the other, I would say, strong underlying drivers in the basic income space is the idea of choice. A lot of this, I think, has been certainly at least fueled by some of the research around unconditional cash that’s been done by GiveDirectly on others in developing nations.

Different people view it even more through a pragmatic lens or more through a moral lens, but it is often better to give people support in a way where they decide for themselves how they use that support. Hence the preference for cash over the services. Because with cash, yes, you are subscribing then to a capitalist market, but that provides a way for people then to choose for themselves, “Do I spend this on food? Do I spend this on rent? Do I spend this taking my kids to Disneyland?” That has a substantial value in itself. I’m curious what your thoughts are about that?

Alyssa: I’m sympathetic to that in some ways. I’m also suspicious of it in that I like both. I think a lot of the critique of certain aspects of the welfare state that come from the Left and from welfare recipients are around the paternalism of the welfare state and the 60’s and so on, where single mothers are being given a hard time by bureaucrats who are telling them how they should take care of their children and treating them like they don’t know what to do.

There certainly is a lot of that. I think actually, one of the reasons to make access to certain benefits more universal, coming with less terms attached is to minimize the degree to which you have people having to jump through hoops to get access to the things they need.

I guess my concern with the framework of choice is less that people shouldn’t be able to choose things. It’s more a couple of things. One is just the way that I think choice has become so– I think the framework of consumer choice comes very strongly out of a lot of neoliberal policy thinkers. This is the free-to-choose as Milton Friedman’s classic idea. It just frames the greatest decision-making power you have is as a consumer in the market and that is where your choice really lies.

I’m a little wary of just creating a program that’s like, “Okay. Well, that’s our paradigmatic value is.” Everyone has the freedom to choose in this sense that that means you get dollars to spend in the market. I do think that there are ways to be free to choose things about your life that if you have access to a set of things including housing, I don’t think that means that housing says you have to live in X place or Y place.

Hopefully, there’s ways to both choice into access to public goods and services, like free public transportation. You can choose where you go. There are many ways to think about choice that aren’t just like, “Here’s a dollar. Where are you going to spend it?” I do think the concern about what happens when people have a basic income and the price of goods is too high for you to choose those things.

Choice in the marketplace depends on how much money you have and how much money other people have to spend on things. I think that especially housing markets and healthcare seem like the most problematic for that. it can be so extreme if your choices are between two extremely expensive health care plans.

This is getting into the more like basic income as a replacement for all welfare state provision, but which is advanced under the banner of choice. It’s like, “Well, people can choose how they spend their money. If they don’t want to buy a health insurance, why should they have to?” Then you’re like, “What happens when people choose not to but they have cancer?” I think I would like to step back from that as the paradigmatic framework for how we think about how we choose things and what that means or what kinds of action that entails.

Jim: I do think your example with health care is a good point because most basic income advocates I know favor a single-payer solution on that. They don’t view healthcare as something that should fall under the auspices of what would be covered in the basic income, specifically because price is so variable that you’ve effectively eliminated choice on the supply side. From my perspective, a pure solution in either direction is very problematic. The question is, where do you draw the line as to what the market actually can handle versus what society should be providing directly.

I think this is a good segue into talking about– you mentioned in your recent piece that you’ve grown more wary of UBI, as you mentioned earlier in the conversation as well, as it’s gained prominence, in particular, due to who the visible champions are and some of the details of the policies being proposed. That touches back to your piece last year, The False Promise of Universal Basic Income, where you were cautioning those on the Left about supporting the policy. I thought you raised some really important points in that piece. Would you be able to just generally walk through your thinking around that?

Alyssa: Sure. Yes, this is a piece slightly misleadingly titled, because it’s more like “some warnings about potential basic income” rather than like “it’s a false promise totally.” However, I am more skeptical. I’d written a previous piece arguing for a UBI as a way to break the growth-job cycle and environmental climate proposal. I was like, “Okay, there’s been all this stuff coming out about basic income. I should see where the debate’s going” and so on.

As I was following the debate as it went on, I got more and more nervous that some of the rhetoric I was hearing, and particularly coming out of—not just rhetoric, but the policy ideas people are putting forward. I think particularly seeing how popular it was amongst Silicon Valley venture capitalist types, gave me real pause. One of the things that UBI people always bring up is that it has supporters on the left and right and there’s these different ideological trajectories. Maybe that makes it potential– you have this potential “big tent” of UBI supporters or something.

I don’t think the fact that there are people in the right who have supported a basic income idea disqualifies it at all. There are very distinctive versions. I was like, “What is going on here?” The more I came to think reading, for example, Andy Stern’s recent book, Raising The Floor on basic income, that it was being proposed basically as– for some people, it is a techno-futurist solution to automation, and there will only be a few gig economy jobs and then what are we going to do with all these masses of unemployed. There are these different competing anxieties about “Will the masses come for us wealthy venture capitalists? We should throw them some UBI to keep them calm.”

That is not I what I’m looking for in the UBI. There’s an idea of UBI as a way to basically have a baseline for the very low wages of the gig economy. You could be an Uber driver and make whatever crappy wages — they’re not even technically wages because they aren’t technically employees. You can make whatever you make on a ride, but the government will backstop that basically. It seemed like a public subsidy to shitty paying private sector jobs, which I think is also not whatever I want UBI to do.

Things that are along these lines, that are positing that basic income as a way to stave off a more egalitarian political economic framework and to deal with the problems of automation. That made me concerned and the thing that I came to think a bit about UBI is that the idea of it as you sometimes see in, for example, in Rutger Bregman’s book, that presents that was rational post-ideological idea that’s solution oriented or it just makes sense as a policy proposal and it doesn’t have an ideological valence, sometimes seems like the good thing about it, but I came to think it was not the good thing about it.

I think that there are a lot of ideological components built into different conceptions of the UBI, and it’s really important to articulate those. My version is actually very different from this other one, and it’s not just the same because we both think a basic income is good. Andy Stern has this imagined debate between Charles Murray and Martin Luther King, Jr., which I found baffling, kind of offensive, that they actually agreed on more than they disagreed on because they thought a basic income was good.

No, I just don’t think that’s true. I think people who are coming at this from the left. I really don’t want to say because there’s a few– because there are people want version of the basic income that I don’t like, this poisons the thing, in the same way that I don’t think that whatever Republicans trying to attach work requirements to food stamps should disqualify job guarantee proposals, which are not trying to do that, even though they both potentially have this work-oriented mode of accessing benefits.

But I think it’s important to be aware of that, to make clear distinctions. I wrote this piece saying, “Here are the things that concern me about the basic income.” I think in this more recent piece, I’m trying to remind the people who are firmly in the job guarantee camp to also be aware of those same things, because I don’t think that job guarantee proposals are workfare, but as people on the Right are calling for workfare, i.e. requiring work to access welfare and other kinds of benefits, that will be something that seeps into that debate whether people on the Left like it or not.

I think we just need to be aware of who are the people who will try to get in on the proposals we’re putting forth, how they will transform from the ideas we come up with and the ideal version – “this is all the good things about it, and this is how it could work.” Those things will change through the political process and particularly when…

Jim: The sausage gets made?

Alyssa: Yes, the sausage is not pretty as it gets made, but also we are not powerful enough like the people who have a Left UBI or Left jobs guarantee to just implement the one we want right now. Right-wing Republicans are very much in power right now, and it is going to be very hard to achieve the utopian vision of either of our policies. I think it’s important to remember how that might shift as things go through the political wringer.

Owen: That was Jim Pugh and Alyssa Battistoni on The Basic Income Podcast.

What I found interesting and insightful about that was that both basic income and jobs guarantee– they are aspirational proposals, and some of the detail can get left out sometimes. I think with both there is the small version and the big version, I’ll call them, where with jobs guarantee there’s, as you described it, there is the Job of Last Resort, where if you can’t find something else, you would still have this, and then there is the idea that you would be able to have a good, middle-class job through a jobs guarantee program.

Those are very different proposals. With basic income, you might see something with a few hundred dollars, maybe up to a thousand, or a true income replacement of $30,000, $50,000 a year or something like that. I think for jobs guarantees, those are very different proposals. For basic income, it is the same idea just more. Maybe people will disagree on that, but I found it instructive just to think through that.

Jim: Yes, I think that’s right. I think you see these different ideas out there, and depending the details you have it, it does make a really big difference. I think that– and this is certainly not true for every job guarantee advocate, you do hear people out there who are very specific in the version that they’re pushing. But there is sometimes this general conflation, and people wrap this up into some big general idea of a policy and then talk about what things that maybe some form of a job guarantee could potentially solve, but it all gets muddled into one.

I think that it does a disservice, I would say, to the idea of a job guarantee because it doesn’t allow you to really understand, “Alright, what are we talking about here? How does this connect to our core values?” It becomes hard to really have a good discussion on that in that case.

Owen: Yes, I think you can get away with it, when it’s a very far off thing, but now it’s being proposed by Democratic candidates for the House and State offices. Yes, I think it’s time to pick a path if you’re one of those people.

Jim: That’s not to say that we need every detail answered, because you can obviously make the same critique with basic income. There is a lot of specific questions that if someone were to say, “Ok, go. What is your national policy?” We wouldn’t have necessarily specific answers to. But I do think particularly the difference between Employer of Last Resort and just the general public works program, it’s not that those are details, those are really different policies. I really would like to see people make that distinction when they do talk about this.

Owen: One other question I would throw in there for a jobs guarantee people is, is this a program that works anywhere, where you live? Do the jobs come to you essentially? Or is there a difference between maybe a more robust public works thing that you might have to travel to and the guaranteed jobs is where you are? I think there are different ways to structure that and potentially some different good ideas in there, but that is a question that always comes to my mind.

Jim: Yes, I feel like most proposals I’ve seen have talked about local jobs, so that seems to be the thrust. But I think that’s also a good follow-up point, which is, if you are considering bigger infrastructure projects, that does likely require more people to move, so yet another reason why it doesn’t fit cleanly into an Employer of Last Resort model.

All that said, I think it’s important to say I personally agree with Alyssa. I don’t think that job guarantee and basic income have to be oppositional. I think that you could absolutely imagine a hybrid proposal where you provide a job to people who want them but then everyone is getting basic income, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If people actually like these jobs and want to take them, okay, they can do that. If not, they have basic income and can figure out their own path.

Owen: Yes, I feel like part of the opposition between these two ideas is the sense that we only have room for one big idea and that they address similar problems. But absolutely on a policy level, I’m just imagining how things would play out, there’s no reason these can’t fit together in the same world.

Jim: Just thinking politically, if you are a supporter of basic income, I think that there is very good reason not to come out hard against job guarantee or at least insist upon leaning into that in debates. because if we are talking about people who are in the general bucket of “thinking outside the box on how we actually guaranteed economic security for everyone,” there is going to be a good chunk of folks who maybe they were first introduced to the job guarantee, that’s what they are used to and so that’s what they advocate for. They could potentially be very open to basic income, but if it’s presented in a way that actually starts with their values, not as, “your idea is terrible, this is better” and so it becomes — it could really galvanize people into these two camps an unproductive way, I think.

Owen: Alright, that’ll do it for this episode of the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. We are back, so we’ll have more episodes in your feed soon, and we’ll talk to you next week.