Universal Basic Income, How We Value Professions, and Productivity

Universal Basic Income – a hippie socialist concept designed to redistribute the wealth of hard-working Americans to freeloading bums on welfare. Anyone who suggests such a blasphemous concept in the capitalist utopia that is America is a goddamned commie.

Right?

The Cost of Living in a Society

Every single one of us benefits from government programs. If you have ever attended a public school, visited a park, bought food at a grocery store, or driven on a road – you have benefited from the tax dollars of other Americans. Government assistance and benefits are not limited to unemployment and food stamps.

Reasonable minds can differ about how much the government should be involved in our lives. Debate about spending priorities and amounts is healthy. We all probably agree that government is inefficient and wastes money. We can all point to examples where the government has spent our taxes to bail out corporations or line the personal pockets of donors rather than the public at large.

But the notion of abolishing all tax revenue and ending all government programs is nihilistic. Let’s face it – you’re not going to build a network of private paved roads to get from your home to every place you want to drive to all on your own, Skippy.

Instead, we have a government to build a network of shared public roads. Our infrastructure pumps potable water to our homes, our police and fire departments defend all of us, and most other necessities (and comforts) of modern American life are conveniently provided to us.

But UBI is Different! Nobody will Work! Society will Crumble!

In a population of 325 million, the existence of freeloaders is statistically guaranteed. Folks who lean ideologically right love to cherry-pick these individuals and present them gift-wrapped as proof that people on government assistance are lazy drug addicts suckling on the teats of hard working Americans.

Unfortunately, that’s really easy to demonize recipients of government aid since unemployment, food stamps, and welfare all have negative stigmas attached to them. They’re also benefits that all Americans pay into but not all Americans reap the benefit of. But with UBI, we could eliminate these social safety nets and replace them with a program that benefits everyone.

And the reality is that most people aren’t freeloaders, nor do they have any desire to be. Most people lose their minds if they have nothing productive to do during the day. They want to work – but are unable to do so for one reason or another. The notion that everyone would sit on their ass all day if given the economic freedom to do so is absurd on its face.

Fun with Numbers

I am not an economist, nor am I particularly good at math. And economic policy on this scale would be incredibly complex and nuanced.  But let’s consider some basic statistics – not necessarily to make the argument for UBI, but to put this all into context and make it a little less abstract.

The current estimated population of the United States is approximately 325 million. Of that, at least 20% are minor children, leaving an adult population of less than 260 million.

The gross domestic product is a measure of the value of goods and services provided in a country for a one year period. I like to think of it as the country’s annual salary. In 2016, the U.S. GDP was $18.5 trillion. Divided among every man, woman, and child, each American would have an annual salary of almost $57,000.

The United States federal budget (not counting all of the individual state and municipal government budgets) for 2016 was $4 trillion. If you spread that out over the entire population, it’s about $12,000 per person.

$12,060 is the 2017 federal poverty level. Funding UBI to dole out $1,005 per month to every citizen would run about $4 trillion per year. Yes, that’s a lot of money, and the government would have to raise taxes to cover services not covered by the UBI (such as infrastructure and military). But keep a few things in mind…

  1. With a UBI, higher taxes on wages and corporate profits wouldn’t be as big of a blow to workers or businesses.
  2. We can eliminate most federal and state safety nets (including social security) from government budgets.
  3. We haven’t even begun to consider other forms of non-tax revenue, nor tax revenue at the state or municipal level.

$12k per year might not be a lot of money to live on. Most people would choose to work to supplement their UBI.  But if someone loses their job, the presence of a UBI is the difference between having shelter or homelessness, and having food or starvation.

Working for Money

For many Americans, income is the primary (if not sole) criteria they look at when searching for jobs. The need to survive and put food on the table forces a lot of us to work jobs that we hate, jobs that we’re not particularly good at, and diverts us from making meaningful contributions. The “perceived need” to finance the American Dream and consumerist culture drives many more into these sub-optimal jobs.

We have a surplus of candidates qualified for high-paying jobs because that’s what parents and teachers told them to study. Too many people want to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and computer techs.  Not enough people want to be teachers, scientists, artists, historians, or philosophers.

We tend to demean and undervalue certain professions without full appreciation for the contributions they make to society. Meanwhile athletes and entertainment celebrities earn money obscenely disproportionate to their actual value and contribution to society.

Universal Basic Income

Working for a Greater Purpose

Imagine a world where your basic needs are met, and income potential is a non-factor when choosing a vocation.

You would have the freedom to do work that makes you happy.

You could work a job better suited to your natural talents and abilities.

Might you be more likely to do work that fills a void in society?

We squander so much of our individual potentials by forcing ourselves to work jobs that pay bills, rather than speak to our talents and abilities. What scientific advancements have we missed out on because a child – a young scientific prodigy – instead chose a life as an accountant because he would make more money? Imagine what we could accomplish if we were all financially secure.

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