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. 
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