Someone ought to decide

The problem with compasses is that people with compasses think they know where they’re going.

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Sam W. make the observation (supported by good evidence) that an Unconditional Basic Income reduces the amount of time people spend working in the formal job sector, or looking for work in the formal job sector. And that’s bad, because policies that marginally discourage people from spending more time in the formal job sector are bad policies.

Policies that don’t pay people to stay at home at care for young children or elderly and sick parents or spouses are bad polices.

Policies that don’t pay people to stay up late at night writing a novel or coding or painting or experimenting in their privately-owned lab are bad policies.

Policies that cause people to spend 10% more time during the week on charitable causes are bad policies.

Policies that produce 5% more home-cooked meals, rather than the more efficiently produced pizza deliveries, are bad polices.

We want policies that produce jobs, and encourage people to spend more time at those jobs. And we know what jobs are. They’re at corporations and government agencies. They’re formalized, and have Tax ID numbers, and are incorporated under statute. They produce reams and reams of useful Board minutes and HR compliance policies. Those are real jobs. Not like some goofballs spitballing in the park about a better way to keep the neighborhood clean – they don’t even have an LLC agreement.

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Of course I don’t believe any of that. I believe the opposite. I think the Unconditional Basic Income is awesome, and I support it – unconditionally. Because I don’t trust the government or any other agency to know what a real job is.

I don’t want the IRS auditing our lives to determine whether a home office is a “real job”. Or whether my collaboration with a neighbor rises to the level of officialness that it warrants government subsidy. I don’t want to file paperwork that proves to some bureaucrat or politician that it was time well spent.

I think people can be trusted to know what their lives need. Maybe they need more money, but maybe they need to spend more time with their kids – kids that can’t afford to pay them for that parenting service. Maybe they have enough to live on and would gain more happiness by participating more in the Church and at the homeless shelter, giving to those who cannot provide them with anything in exchange but gratitude.

And this is a generalizeable principle. I’m not a fan of having the government decide what people ought to do. We know the government shouldn’t decide how to allocate resources (Communism = bad), so why give them the power to determine (or at least marginally encourage) what categories of activity resources should be allocated to? Why adopt a policy that officially discourages tinkering and trying new things with the minimal amount of regulatory overhead? That doesn’t seem wise to me.

Of course this is where someone jumps in and says people are rationally selfish and won’t do hard and ugly things that need doing without payment. That’s somewhat true. No one wakes up at 3 AM to collect garbage as a hobby. But let me state three priors that cause me to believe this won’t be a harmful policy: (1) I believe that people have a strong innate desire to be seen as productive and useful members of society, so no one is going to stay at home playing video games forever. Eventually the desire for respect will drive them out. (2) Most proposals of UBI provide a very low level of income. You’d only agree to live off that alone if you’re really passionate about what you’re doing with your unpaid time. My hunch is that that kind of passion only comes from things that are driving value to someone, somewhere, eventually, even if it’s not getting compensated at that moment. And (3) My Adamtopia has minimal barriers to new entry in all sectors, so the high levels of unemployment you see in socialist countries that ban competition should never occur. I think that sort of apocalyptic level of resource-wasting is more associated with banning industriousness than subsidizing sloth.

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Unconditional Basic Income. Because someone ought to decide where your efforts are best lent at a given time, and that someone is you.

Voluntary Workfare

The 1996 TANF reforms turned the legacy welfare payment system from chronic support into something closer to an income-smoothing program. Recipients are eligible only temporarily, and subject to certain restrictions. Unconditional Basic Income proposals aim to reverse that idea, to deliver cash to everyone to do with as they please.

Contrast that with wage subsidies, or conditional income, where you’re eligible for transfer payments tied to good-faith efforts to stay employed.

I ask myself what the purpose of transfer payments are. Are they chiefly to help ease liquidity problems for people who find themselves intermittently employed, or are they chiefly to support people who, for reasons of accident or injury utterly unable to support themselves with the fruits of their labor?

Unconditional Basic Income may produce unintended, unwanted consequences. Workfare addresses some of these worries, but can it not carry with it the risk of heaving out the most vulnerable on their backsides? 

I’m afraid I see no good way for an omnibus repeal of the crazy ad hoc patchwork of transfer systems to stick given what I know of public opinion from my time spent questing in the realm of the General Social Survey. Workfare is a tradeoff, not a solution.