Universal Basic Income as Pacification for the Poor, Liberation for the Wealthy

Carmen Petaccio; Author of “Universal Basic Bullshit” on The New Inquiry

It’s been too long since I’ve done a running commentary on an article.

To remedy that, here’s one on how the UBI is bullshit.

In the spring of 1968, a full-page letter addressed to Congress appeared in the Sunday edition of the New York Times, written by five prominent liberal economists. The letter’s chief author, John Kenneth Galbraith, argued that a country as wealthy as the United States should, for reasons both ethical and financial, “give everybody the assurance of a basic income.”

I just want to point out here that Galbraith is well-known tot me (and hopefully others) as someone who helped pioneer corporate liberalism. He helped speed along the New Deal, headed powerful government organizations, and tried to normalize the place of big corporations within the economy early in his career.

So the fact that one of the most prominent and “successful” UBI proposal was mostly spearheaded by him should definitely raise some questions. Especially for anyone who thinks the UBI will most benefit the disenfranchised.

Having observed that the free market tends to constrain freedom for most, Galbraith advocated for “a national system of income guarantees and supplements”—that is, payments that would ensure the poorest Americans could still purchase basic needs like food, water, and shelter. (What an idea.)

What an idea indeed.

It’s a ludicrous idea, given the government can barely stay open.

But I digress.

Although I agree that if by, “free markets”, Galbraith means “capitalism” that our freedoms are restrained I otherwise don’t think (unsurprisingly) that Galbraith had any idea what he was talking about. A marketplace that has government interventions (which Galbraith) led the charge on and corporate privileges (ditto) isn’t a free market.

The letter was cosigned by 1200 of Galbraith’s fellow professional economists, and likely served as motivation for the proposal of Richard Nixon’s 1969 Family Assistance Plan.

That bill, had it passed, would have given the current equivalent of $10,000 per year to the poorest of America’s families, but due to bipartisan opposition—conservatives deemed the legislation too generous, while liberals thought it not generous enough—the legislation died on the floor of the Senate.

I’ve never really understood why UBI proponents think that anything like the UBI would pass when the closest thing to it didn’t even get through the Senate the last time it was tried. Even if it was close to getting passed (which it doesn’t sound like) history should at least be a guide to how polarizing the UBI can be among politicians.

That said, the UBI can also animate both sides. With conservatives liking the idea of less bureaucracy and liberals applauding the ways the poor will benefit. …Or at least that’s the rhetoric that UBI proponents use. But I’m skeptical of anyone who is in congress and says they oppose bureaucracy. The most conservative of UBI policies (financially speaking) would have to cut many programs that politicians themselves have investment in.

In the decades since, the question of a universal basic income has remained on the margins of economic debate, though two distinct camps are presently trying to resurrect it.

The first camp is dominated by progressive economic populists, like Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project. The second camp, of course, is billionaires.

I also noticed this trend when I criticized Elon Musk, here.

“Momentum for universal basic income is growing,” the billionaire Richard Branson concluded in a recent podcast ad / blog post. Titled “Experimenting with Universal Basic Income,” Branson’s native advertisement frames itself around his meeting with “The Elders,” a bafflingly real super-team of global leaders whose ranks include Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, and the ghost of Nelson Mandela

The Elders sounds like a super group made out of rock star legends to me.

But that works too.

At The Elders’ remote headquarters in Finland, Branson learns of the nascent UBI programs being implemented in cities across the Western world, as well as the ethical paragons who have already voiced support for basic income programs: “Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and senior Vatican members are among those who have raised the idea too.”

I’m not sure members of the Vatican are exactly the most ethical of people..

Today’s basic income programs are often pitched by the elite as measures to offset income losses from automation, yet their greatest advocates are the principal drivers and profiteers of the phenomenon.

Why, fifty years after economists like Galbraith foresaw the divergence of productivity and wage growth, has this populist concept taken sudden hold of the elite? What has disrupted the disruptors?

Before moving on to the answers provided I just want to quickly comment that the first part of that quote makes total sense to me. I think it actually makes sense to the author too (as we’ll see soon). If the people who are causing a phenomenon realize down the road, “Oh shit, X might happen and that’s bad but maybe we could try Y to mitigate it that way we can still have X?” I would think they would do that.

But let’s continue.

In 2016, another billionaire proffered a workable model for mobilizing populist forces to his own personal gain, conning millions of economically precarious Americans into supporting policies—tax breaks for corporatists, a hostile disregard for climate science, healthcare revocations positioned as reforms—that would profoundly worsen their quality of life.

That’s of course, Trump.

I had some interesting reactions him becoming president:

  1. I lost whatever hope I had left in politics as a vehicle for social change
  2. I felt like I could enjoy my life more

For years I’d been under the illusion that somehow politics would get us to anarchism, eventually. We would inch there closer and closer from president to president. Obama was terrible but he was better in some marginal ways than other presidents. Even if he was (to name a few) drone bombing children in the middle east and Guantanamo was still open.

Some part of me wanted to believe that politics (electoral or otherwise) could make a difference in the world. But for the better. But Trump cured me of any disillusions towards that notion. Not that I voted for Hillary or would’ve but at least it would have made a lot more sense if that had happened.

I could keep living my life and accept that maybe liberal democracy was here to stay and that it would become marginally better and more accepting over time. Trans rights were starting to be a thing and even if Obama was a war criminal at least he seemed like…you know, a human being.

I thought social movements such as Black Lives Matter, Occupy, the protests around the world against powerful regimes  were leading to something. And who knows, maybe it still is. Maybe the reaction against Trump after this election will be the most major one we’ll ever see. I’m interested to find out…if we haven’t died from nuclear fallout first.

In his successful election bid, this billionaire proved both the transformative potential of simplistic rhetoric and the masses’ eagerness to accept vacuous assurances rather than confront uncomfortable realities.

As defined by the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt, the word for this deceitful enterprise is bullshit. It’s bullshit in the rhetorical sense, as it persuades without any regard for truth, and it’s bullshit in the ethical sense, as it ruins people’s lives.

That being said, agreed with all of this and the above quote.

Now, with universal basic income, the liberal-leaning billionaires have thrown their hats into the bullshit circus ring, ready to determine precisely how little will pacify the working class.

Like Branson’s inane blog post, the liberal elite promotion of UBI is transparent self-interest posing as benevolence, a shadow play by the powerful for the disempowered.

With lines like, “The hope is that policies like these can help people struggling just to survive and allow them to get on their feet, be entrepreneurial and be more creative.” it’s hard to argue that Branson and others don’t just want to just (or at least mainly) use the UBI as a way to keep people contributing to the capitalist economy.

But hey, we would feel good about ourselves. And that’s the important thing, right?

There will soon come a time, a bright, new future that doubles as a second dark age, when a majority of the world economy’s jobs will be either fully automated or altogether eliminated. Neither high-skilled nor low-skilled work will be spared from obliteration: Touch-screen stations will completely replace retail cashiers, as multilimbed robotic hydras perform brain surgeries.

Well, to be fair, that sounds pretty awesome.

It’s just less awesome when capitalism is involved.

As the machines occupy an ever greater slice of the economy, the capital that they generate will flow into fewer and fewer pockets; namely, into those of the tech moguls currently advocating for a universal basic income.

On one hand, this sort of scare has been around for a long time. And each time this scare has happened poor people end up getting access to new technologies. I’m hundreds of dollars below the poverty line and I still have 2 laptops, a PS3 and a solid smartphone. That would be unheard of even 10-15 years ago.

But on the other other hand, it’s tough to say that the sort of phenomenon that’s being discussed here isn’t happening in a way that it wasn’t in the past. Tractors replacing horses was one thing but robots doing most of the manual labor we can do, is something else.

For them, exploratory UBI programs aren’t practice runs for a protosocialism that could counteract the woes of late capitalism. Rather, they are beta tests for deceptive public policy that could sustain late capitalism forever.

Agreed. The point of capitalism isn’t to empower workers, it’s to empower (in a systematic way) capital and the people who own the most capital. And the people who tend to own the most capital are these billionaires who want to help determine everyone who is decidedly not a billionaire, how they live their lives under capitalism.

You know, the system that is designed to benefit them.

The aim is pacification, not liberation.

A universal basic income is, in the most cynical sense, a subtle kind of doomsday prep for the tech billionaire, a means to diffuse the revolutionary potential of the working class by supplying them with the absolute bare minimum, just enough to keep them almost happy, fat in the apps.

Exactly right. When workers demand the bread then they’ll just give us crumbs instead. When we ask for the bakery itself they’ll just give us a small bag of bread. Demanding anymore than that is liable to incite the police, the muscle for the state and the capitalist class. And even just demanding the bakery can do just the same.

An Alexa or a Home. Three Blue Apron meals a day. A Casper mattress in a tiny house. Why work when you have this basic heaven to gain?

Okay, I know the point that’s trying to be made here but honestly, this just makes me think capitalism is pretty great.

Who doesn’t enjoy automated AI helping them out in the home? What about deliveries that come to your house so you don’t have to deal with humans or at least as little as possible? What about a quality mattress?

And yeah, I’d rather not work. So that’s a plus.

But I get that the dark side to all of this is that these resources are being monopolized by a class of people and that resources could be distributed in a way more equitable to all. Not just for the capitalists.

Just as the ostensible simplicity of UBI obscures its harmful latent potential, the concept’s promised universality would likely be anything but. … Meanwhile, those citizens lucky enough to gain access to the program would be submitting to governmental surveillance of untold invasiveness, where everything from purchase histories to biometric data could be used to determine eligibility.

These are two points I’ve made as well. Just how universal would a UBI be? Would it include immigrants who are undocumented? What about felons? What about children? What about the disabled? What about marginalized groups who are barely recognized as people in many cases (trans folks being an example)?

This article mentions the points about felons and immigrants and they’re great ones. If anything, the UBI would likely reinforce xenophobia within the US. Why would Americans want to give money to undocumented immigrants? And without a much less white supremacist society I can’t imagine this working out for white folks and non-whites the same.

As for the invasiveness, that could be an overstated point given how much bureaucracy you’d have to cut to make the UBI anywhere near workable. Then again, if the government is good at anything it’s acting like a Hydra and where some of its bureaucratic heads have been chopped off, it grows 7 in its place.

The American government has an extensive history of denying its most vulnerable citizens access to the programs they need the most, so why would such a generous, plainly redistributive program be any exception? In all likelihood, a bill proposing a universal basic income would only pass as hodgepodge legislation, a bundle of counterposed policies that undercuts the original purpose it was drafted to serve, a UBI that bypasses the destitute to deliver funds to those who need them least.

And when those inefficiencies result, wealthy private interests will be there to monetize them, to remake the social service in their own mercenary image.

While I haven’t used this exact language I very much agree with this point.

Throughout history so-called reforms are either undermined from the start or later on. The point of a women’s prison was to make inmate abuse less rampant but instead it has drastically increased the amount of women incarcerated.

This is all a way of saying that the specifics of a universal basic income system cannot be left to the billionaire entrepreneurs and millionaire politicians—Republican and Democrat—whose destructive influence necessitated a UBI in the first place. The lower-class people who stand to benefit from a universal basic income should be the primary, if not sole, architects of the program.

I have some sympathy towards this idea. If anyone deserves to be building programs for the poor it should be, you know, the poor. But who makes up the poor, how decisions are made, how the program is formed at all, these are all very important and interesting questions to mull over. I’d rather have folks focus on their own neighborhoods and start there before trying to make some sort of universal basic healthcare. Mutual aid is a fine practice by itself anyways.

If charged with a task that rightfully belongs to the government, plutocrats will find a way to reroute power and money into their own hands, an outcome that cannot be abided considering the monumental constructive transformations that a UBI stands bring about.

Wait, the same government you just said is incredible invasive? The same one who is led by a billionaire (and historically has been more often than not)? The government is plenty mercenary-like on their own (e.g. Blackwater) and don’t really need the help of corporations or the obscenely rich to be that way. It just helps.

Sorry, but I wouldn’t trust the government you’ve been talking about. I’m not sure why you would either.

The great tragedy of the universal income debate is that the program could be implemented tomorrow and, despite all the possible complications outlined above, millions of lives would be radically, gloriously improved. If, for instance, 2018’s proposed $700 billion budget for military spending were distributed to the 45 million Americans living under the federal poverty line, each individual would receive an outlay of more than $15,500; for a low-income family of four, their annual income would nearly quadruple overnight.

The positive effects of this influx cannot be quantified—such a windfall belongs foremost to the spirit—and it seems a national sickness that tax dollars are instead allocated on infinite war and imaginary walls.

I actually agree with most of this. I still think (despite all of my criticisms of the UBI) that if implemented in a particular way (i.e. maximize the cutting of bureaucracy, take spending from military and other services) that it would still drastically help some of the poorest in the US. You know, if it was actually implemented correctly.

But I trust the government with that as much as I trust Trump to not blow us all up.

This is why the debate over universal basic income must be wrested away from the automators, the innovators, the bomb builders, and the billionaires. In the face of material poverty, they have delivered unto society the one thing we have in superabundance: Its fucking bullshit.

Agreed, but remember that there are bomb builders and those who ask those bombs to be built to begin with. This article, like many similar to it, ignores the symbiotic role of government and corporations.

Even when, surprisingly, most of the article is spot on about their relationship up until the end.

In spite of that though, this is an excellent article. And while I quoted most of it there’s still some sections I left out for sake of brevity. Check this article out and let me know what you think!

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4 thoughts on “Universal Basic Income as Pacification for the Poor, Liberation for the Wealthy

  1. Most of the poor people in the ghettoes and trailer parks already have UBIs—it’s called welfare. It hasn’t improved things; it’s destroyed society wherever it was implemented. So far UBI hasn’t created a class of artists and philosophers, it’s created a class of derelicts and criminals. Unearned stuff doesn’t just destroy most poor people, it also destroys most rich people. Has the UBI, in the form of large inheritances, made the kids of the rich into better or happier people? Sometimes—if their parents have good values. But usually not. They’re “enabled” to become spoiled brats, of no use to either themselves or other people. If a true UBI was put into effect, productive people are going to find it degrading, and unproductive people are going to take advantage of it. More important, it’s immoral, because you’re taking production from some people and giving it to others that have done nothing in return to deserve it. That creates resentment. Simply being alive doesn’t give you the right to demand things from other people. Doug Casey

    • Hey Polka, thanks for the comment.

      I see where you’re coming from but the “UBI” from Welfare is certainly not universal and it many cases it doesn’t help poor people (especially with families) enough for them to afford their *basic* needs. It’s also less of an income and more of very conditional grant from the state.

      Inheritance is even less like the UBI.

      “If a true UBI was put into effect, productive people are going to find it degrading, and unproductive people are going to take advantage of it. ”

      Based on the studies I’ve looked at about free money and what it does to people, I don’t find this a compelling hypothesis.

      “More important, it’s immoral, because you’re taking production from some people and giving it to others that have done nothing in return to deserve it. That creates resentment. Simply being alive doesn’t give you the right to demand things from other people.”

      I don’t entirely disagree as I am an anarchist. But at the same time I think some immoralities are better than others. I’d still prefer a sustainable UBI over the current welfare state, but I would prefer mutual aid within networked communities built from the bottom up even more.

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