Monday, June 13, 2016

Universal basic income

The idea of offering lump sum payments to all citizens or residents, often called "universal basic income" or "demogrants" or the "negative income tax," has been cycling back into public consciousness recently, although it was just rejected in Switzerland by a vote of 77% to 23% (!), and although I can't imagine it happening in the U.S., at least explicitly, at any time in the foreseeable future.

Still, the UBI and related concepts combine (a) genuine policy merits with both (b) being frequently misunderstood and (c) having an unusual mix of support on both the left and the right (e.g., James Tobin and Milton Friedman; George McGovern and Richard Nixon; Martin Luther King and Friedrich Hayek).

Ben Leff has recently posted a blog entry regarding UBI (see also his prior post here) in which he was kind enough to post a link to an article that I wrote, more than 15 years ago (egad), touching on this topic.

I hope my readers will forgive me for being unable to resist noting here that Leff says my article "figuratively blew my mind when I first read it .... When I told my wife that Shaviro's article had blown my mind, she said, 'Compare it to Carlos Castaneda, and I said 'More! It blew my mind more than Castaneda.'"  He then offers a crisp account of several of the main points I made in that article.

UBI is an extremely rich topic, touching in multiple ways not just on economics, but also on political science, distributive justice, administrative law, and poverty program mechanics.  It's thus well worth writing about.  Even if an express UBI is politically unattainable, the discussion can have not just theoretical but perhaps even practical benefits, by reason of its improving our understanding of the relevant issues and design trade-offs.

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