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Why a Basic Income is No Silver Bullet

Photo of filled lecture hall
Photos by Jason Backrak
Feb 8 2019
Sarah Berger Gonzalez

The hunger to hear nuanced views on the pros and cons of universal basic income (UBI) was evident in the capacity crowd that gathered for a recent discussion among several scholars with expertise in ethics, political economy and labor politics.

The panel for the January 10 event, "Basic Income Illusions," included philosophy Professor Debra Satz, dean of the School of Humanities & Sciences at Stanford, and Assistant Professor Lucas Stanczyk, in the philosophy department at Harvard. Their discussion was moderated by Stanford Professor Margaret Levi, a professor of political science and director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Science.

The event’s name referred to the title of a new paper by Stancyzk and Alex Gourevitch of Brown University. Together, they argue that a basic-income program that gives people enough money to get by has no chance of being adopted in America until the working class is organized and powerful enough to force the ultra-wealthy to pay all the taxes needed to fund the program.

When Stancyzk summed up his scholarly views for the audience, he characterized as suspicious the high-profile support for UBI from Bay Area tech tycoons: "When Silicon Valley billionaires endorse an apparently extreme Left idea, you know there is a problem," he said, adding that members of that class are "not about to expropriate themselves out of untold future business profits out of the goodness of their hearts."Lucas Stancyzk speaking

Stancyzk's stance starts with the goal of raising the income of working-class people to a level that's high enough to free them from having to settle for poverty-wage work. And in his view, there are two ways to achieve that — organizing labor, or passing legislation that creates a UBI program.

Stancyzk clearly thinks the former is more realistic than the latter, saying that "legislating a livable basic income can't plausibly be prioritized over what's needed to organize the working class as a political force and reinvigorate the labor movement.”

Meanwhile, Dean Satz argued that what people owe each other isn't necessarily unrestricted cash payments. Rather, we should work to build the social conditions needed to achieve true equality. That, she explained, means prioritizing public goods and services like education and healthcare.

"A well-funded UBI at a high level runs the risk of diverting desperately needed resources to improve the quality of public goods by distributing them, kind of spreading them like peanut butter, over millions of different uses," by letting people spend their stipends however they see fit, Satz said:

She also pointed out that the unconditional nature of a UBI "undermines the ideal of reciprocity at the heart of the welfare state." Moreover, Satz said such a program risks eroding the support of those in the workforce whose wages would be taxed in order to fund a generous basic-income program.

That's why Satz said she would be more in favor of what the late economist Anthony Atkinson called a "participation income," where recipients are required to contribute to society in return for their payment. Satz explained how that obligation could be defined broadly to include work like volunteering, job training or caring for the elderly.

The discussion is exactly the kind of dialogue that the Stanford Basic Income Lab strives to promote. The Lab, which co-hosted the event with the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, seeks to create a more informed public about basic income and how it might be implemented.

Sarah Berger Gonzalez is the program manager for the Stanford Basic Income Lab.

"The Buzz" is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's media portal for ethics-related news on campus and beyond. We review events and speakers, and we feature initiatives that are of broad interest. A wide range of voices author the articles, including undergraduate students.