Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Universal Basic Income: The Economist Drops the Logic Ball

The June 4 issue of The Economist has an article about universal basic income proposals, calling it "Basically flawed" and warning that "Proponents of a basic income underestimate how disruptive it would be." The article does make some good points in need of addressing, but also includes a paragraph of such bafflingly obvious bias, I'm amazed the editorial department let it through.

I generally like The Economist, and can respect its arguments even if I disagree with its opinions (that my household actually pays for a subscription is proof enough of that), and the editorial does raise some valid concerns regarding any guaranteed basic income proposal — particularly the inherent cost of giving money to all adult citizens, plus the fear that certain welfare recipients enrolled in a variety of different safety-net programs might actually wind up poorer, if all of their current benefits were entirely replaced by a single, lower check.

The piece starts off with a thumbnail explanation of why and how basic income proposals are even an issue:
WORK is one of society’s most important institutions. It is the main mechanism through which spending power is allocated. It provides people with meaning, structure and identity. Yet work is a less generous, and less certain, provider of these benefits than it once was. Since 2000 economic growth across the rich world has failed to generate decent pay increases for most workers. Now there is growing fear of a more fundamental threat to the world of work: the possibility that new technologies, from machine learning to driverless cars, will cause havoc to employment.
The piece goes on to discuss the then-upcoming Swiss voter referendum on a basic income (which failed), discusses the high cost such a program would have in America, and also points out that certain current welfare recipients might actually end up poorer if all their current benefits were replaced by a single low guaranteed check.

But after these and other sensible-sounding pro-and-con arguments, the article falls into this:
A universal basic income would also destroy the conditionality on which modern welfare states are built. During an experiment with a basic-income-like programme in Manitoba, Canada, most people continued to work. But over time, the stigma against leaving the workforce would surely erode: large segments of society could drift into an alienated idleness. Tensions between those who continue to work and pay taxes and those opting out weaken the current system; under a basic income, they could rip the welfare state apart.
Translation: when a guaranteed basic income was actually tried, it did not result in the mass workforce defections its opponents fear ... but surely, that's bound to change. The same logic is often used by still-fervent drug warriors who insist that the war on drugs is a good and necessary thing because if intoxicants other than alcohol were legal, society would collapse because everyone would just sit around getting stoned all day: “When Portugal experimented with decriminalizing drugs, most people continued to not-become drug addicts. But over time, the stigma against being an addict would surely erode: large segments of society could drift into chemically induced bliss.”

Anything could lead to various bad outcomes, and any bad outcome might conceivably happen. But the fact that it might isn't evidence that it will, and I'm disappointed that The Economist resorted to such shoddy reasoning. “A universal basic income scheme went well in Manitoba, but it's bound to go bad eventually” is not evidence or even a supporting anecdote; that's just pure bias speaking. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Some Trump Delegates, I Assume, Are Good People

A Trump delegate from Maryland was arrested on a variety of charges including the creation and possession of child pornography.

No surprise there. To paraphrase a self-described great man: When America sends its people to Trump rallies, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Why Demographics Disfavor the Donald

Nothing in politics is guaranteed, so I won't say "Donald Trump will definitely lose the 2016 presidential election," but I will say the demographics are not in his favor; barring another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil or similarly unpredictable black swan event, a Trump victory is extremely unlikely, due to simple demographics.

Remember the 2012 election campaign, when Romney supporters were convinced their candidate would win by a comfortable margin? Although I can't find the link now, at the time I recall a Romney adviser who admitted his boss' campaign strategy was to focus on winning a super-majority of white voters, and ignoring everyone else. Even so, the adviser admitted that due to changing American demographics (the percentage of white voters relative to others drops about 3 percent with each succeeding presidential election), 2012 would be the last time a "white votes only" strategy had any chance of winning the American presidency.

Of course, it did not work. And Romney's campaign merely ignored non-white Americans, whereas  Trump has actively insulted and/or threatened the bulk of them, in addition to polling far worse among women of all colors than Romney ever did.

For all that I dislike Hillary Clinton, I still choose her over a blowhard conspiracy theorist endorsed by the likes of Stormfront and the KKK.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Friendly Advice for the GOP

I spent the past few days on a road trip to St. Louis and back, and drove westward across Indiana on the Sunday before Tuesday's primary, which is how I heard an actual radio ad promoting Ted Cruz. Actually, I only heard part of it, over the reasoned political commentary (read: trumpet-fart noises) I made throughout.

Still, I was genuinely shocked on Tuesday night, when I heard that Ted Cruz dropped out of the race, effectively ceding the nomination to Donald Trump. And I know the GOP movers-n-shakers are now wondering, "What the hell happened? How did we so lose control over our own party that an unprincipled narcissistic opportunist like Donald Trump became our presidential front-runner?"

I think y'all's problem is this: you haven't expressed contempt and/or hatred for enough of your fellow Americans. These past few years, you've ONLY lashed out against secularists, scientists, "liberals," gay people and friends thereof, poor people and friends thereof, sexually active women (willing or otherwise) who don't want to be mommies just yet, immigrants, non-whites, non-Christians and anyone with non-traditional hetero missionary-position sexuality.

In other words: you obviously do not yet hate enough of your fellow Americans to get yourselves elected into the White House. So maybe you could try making your big tent a just little bit bigger? In addition to the aforementioned "threats to campaign against, rather than voters to be courted," try adding a few more planks to your campaign platform: you ought to start lashing out against pet owners, chocolate lovers, folks with seasonal allergies, and people who wear corrective eyeglasses. (Hey, that last bit worked well for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; why shouldn't it work for you, too)?

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Poor News Judgment From ABC

I don't know if the national network is to blame, or merely my local (Washington, D.C. suburbs) affiliate, but: somebody in the ABC News hierarchy has some pretty warped ideas regarding what warrants a special news bulletin. Last night I was watching my DVR recording of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." when suddenly -- in the middle of the scene showing Ward and Malick making nefarious plans in that corporate boardroom -- the recorded transmission was interrupted by an ABC "Special News" bulletin.

I immediately felt a twinge of fear: what sudden news development could be important enough for a network to interrupt a prime-time broadcast? Has there been a terrorist attack on American soil? Did somebody assassinate the president? Maybe North Korea fired missiles at Seoul?

None of that, thankfully; 'twas merely an announcement that analysts projected Ted Cruz to win the Wisconsin primary, followed by a couple minutes' worth of George Stephanopoulos confirming this.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Could a Guaranteed Basic Income Save America's Free Market Economy?

Remember when then-vice president Dick Cheney said “The American way of life is non-negotiable?” When you get right down to it, that attitude explains the current popularity of Bernie Sanders among American left-wingers and Donald Trump among the right – if you define “the American way of life” as “Anybody who's honest and willing to put in a full day's work can make a decently comfortable life for themselves, and perhaps a small family.”

Yet for many working- and middle-class Americans, that way of life is dying if not already dead. High school graduates who a generation or so ago could've found good-paying factory jobs are instead flipping burgers for eight bucks an hour – and evermore college grads are doing the same thing, with the added burden of an enormous (and bankruptcy-proof) student loan debt weighing them down even more. So it's no surprise that Donald Trump gets massive applause at his rallies when he promises to bring factory jobs back to America, either via undoing international trade agreements or imposing punitive tariffs on imports.

But such actions would be catastrophic for the country's economy, and cause serious pain to American consumers as well. Consider this relevant anecdote: over the past few weeks, Mein Spouse and I have fallen into the habit of watching early 1970s episodes of Monty Hall's old game show Let's Make A Deal, airing on a cable network. Neither of us are interested in the “deals” contestants make, but we like seeing all the early 1970s prizes that they win, and what those prizes suggest about technological changes and improvements since then.

A couple nights ago, somebody won a 25" color television worth $700, in 1972 dollars. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' inflation calculator, $700 in 1972 was equivalent to $3,970.76 today. By way of comparison, when I bought my 36" high-def TV in 2013, I paid just under $300 excluding sales tax.

In other words: the real, inflation-adjusted price of my television, not even counting the larger screen, clearer images and other advantages it has over a 1972 model, was only one-thirteenth as much as it would have cost 44 years ago. And I could cite similar anecdotes about every home appliance Monty Hall gave away in 1972: refrigerators, dishwashers, laundry washers and dryers, window-unit air conditioners – all cost as many if not more U.S. dollars in 1972 than they do today, even before adjusting those dollars for inflation (especially the microwave ovens, which were still new tech back then -- on another episode, somebody won an Amana Radarange that sold for $400 in 1972, compared to the $50 or so a countertop microwave costs today).

Some of those price drops over the past four decades are due to technological improvements, yes, but some of that is also comes from moving the factories out of America to countries with lower labor costs.

It's undeniably awesome that such wonderful appliances can be had for so very little money. Even people working crummy McJobs at $8 an hour can afford a microwave oven and color TV nowadays. At the same time, it's no mystery why today's un- or under-employed American ex-factory workers are unhappy about losing their steady, well-paying jobs and replacing them with low-paying, insecure gigs.

The problem boils down to “diffuse benefits, concentrated costs”: the benefits of these trade deals and technological improvements are spread out among all American consumers (not to mention the overseas factory workers whose jobs lifted them out of poverty), whereas the costs have been largely concentrated on American working-class families. Consider the perspective of an American McJob worker who, back in the day, had a high-paying factory position making 25" TVs that sold for $4,000 apiece and now flips burgers or stocks shelves for eight bucks an hour: yeah, he probably owns more and better appliances than did his 1972 counterpart working in the TV or microwave oven factory. But his job is a lot worse: a steady, constant, 9-to-5 position with regularly scheduled time off, paid vacation and sick days, full benefits and so forth is inherently better than a part-time, ever-changing schedule, no paid leave and no bennies gig, even if both have the same base pay (and they don't). At the same time, bringing back those high-paying American factory jobs via trade restrictions and tariffs would be spectacularly bad for consumers and the economy as a whole: if my TV cost $4,000, I wouldn't have one.

So Trump's plan to bring factory jobs back to America wouldn't bring prosperity with it. What about Bernie Sanders' proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15? Sounds good at first, but the end result would likely be a net loss of minimum-wage jobs. And his proposal to make four-year college educations free for all would only make a four-year college degree the new high-school diploma: a minimum educational credential that isn't remotely enough to qualify for a good job, merely an entrance ticket to the next level of schooling required for a shot at a decent job and a decent life. (Besides, even in a Lake Wobegon America where everybody has above-average intelligence and educational credentials, we'll still need shelf-stockers and burger-flippers, and they'll still need enough money to live on.)

In other words, bringing “good” working-class jobs back to America isn't a feasible option, and making today's working-class jobs as “good” as they used to be isn't an option either. Ignoring the pain of the working classes is another non-option; the people bearing the concentrated costs of America's economic changes are not only not mollified by reminders that all Americans benefit from the availability of affordable, high-quality consumer goods; they are getting angry over the repeated platitudes that their personal and familial hardships are a small price to pay for the greater good, or that they're selfish and entitled for wanting a better life than what they've got.

What about the suggestion that they retool themselves and acquire the skills necessary to be useful in the new economy? That's what they've been hearing for at least a generation now, and that's exactly why Donald freaking Trump is the GOP presidential frontrunner.

So here's a modest proposal: rather than passing trade restrictions or minimum-wage increases in the vain hope of making working-class jobs better, how about we eliminate minimum-wage laws altogether, discard our current patchwork coupon/voucher/food-stamp welfare safety net, and replace all of this with a modest Guaranteed Basic Income for all American citizens over age 18? Off the top of my head, let's say $250 per adult per week – rising every year pegged to the inflation rate, and classified as ordinary income for income-tax purposes.

Granted, giving $250 to every adult citizen would cost a fortune in tax money – but those costs would be somewhat offset by the elimination of however-much we currently spend on patchwork welfare programs (Section 8 housing vouchers, EBT “food stamps,” and so forth). Giving this money to every adult citizen regardless of “need” would be cheaper than our current system of maintaining an army of well-paid bureaucrats to decide who is and is not qualified, and hold the various hoops through which welfare recipients are expected to jump. Consider also the resulting economic boost—money given to the poorest of people goes back into the economy almost immediately, because those po'folks are not stuffing the money in their mattresses; they're immediately spending it on household necessities. (And of course, whichever companies they buy those necessities from are paying taxes on their resulting profits.)

Eliminating the minimum wage would (presumably) make this proposal more palatable to American employers – but at the same time, the end result would not be “Certain crap jobs end up paying a dollar a day,” because that basic adult income would reduce if not eliminate the number of people desperate enough to take any job they can get, at any wage that is offered. And while $250 per adult per week is not enough to pay for a comfortably secure middle-class existence (indeed, it's only a little higher than the official federal poverty level for one person), that guaranteed subsidy combined with whatever wages a worker could earn in a truly free marketplace would bring back the old “American way of life,” defined as “Anybody who's honest and willing to put in a full day's work can make a decently comfortable life for themselves, and perhaps a small family.”

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Bigotry After Brussels

ISIS has claimed responsibility for today's horrible terrorist attack in Belgium, followed by Islamic leaders throughout the world condemning this appalling crime, which in turn was ignored by the usual bigots demanding to know "Where's the Muslim outrage, huh?"

It's obvious that the only way to satisfy these people is for every individual Muslim to replace standard punctuation with condemnations of terrorism, as follows:

"Could you please pass the salt? I'm outraged by terrorist violence."

"Congratulations on the birth of your new baby! I say this as a Muslim who hates terrorist violence."

"Sorry, can't meet you for dinner tomorrow; I have to study for my math final and be outraged by terrorist violence."

"Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and I condemn terrorism too."
FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from freestats.com