Several recent books have provided good background briefings for what a U.B.I. could be, including those by the labor leader Andy Stern, the Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and the Belgian academics Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght. To these offerings, Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur, adds his own, somewhat breathless version in “The War on Normal People.” Annie Lowrey, a contributing editor for The Atlantic, provides a similarly upbeat, although more measured, assessment in “Give People Money.” Both are useful primers on the case for a U.B.I.
The two books cover so much of the same terrain that I’m tempted to wonder whether they were written by the same robot, programmed for slightly different levels of giddy enthusiasm. Both cite Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Nixon and Milton Friedman as early supporters of a U.B.I. Both urge that a U.B.I. be set at $1,000 a month for every American. Both point out that with poverty currently defined as an income for a single adult of less than $12,000 a year, such a U.B.I. would, by definition, eliminate poverty for the 41 million Americans now living below the poverty line. It would also improve the bargaining power of millions of low-wage workers — forcing employers to increase wages, add benefits and improve conditions in order to retain them. If a U.B.I. replaced specific programs for the poor, it would also reduce government bureaucracy, minimize government interference in citizens’ lives and allow people to avoid the stigma that often accompanies government assistance. By virtue of being available to all, a U.B.I. would not only guarantee the material existence of everyone in a society; it would establish a baseline for what membership in that society means.
U.B.I.’s critics understandably worry that it would spur millions to drop out of the labor force, induce laziness or at least rob people of the structure and meaning work provides. Both Yang and Lowrey muster substantial research to rebut these claims. I’m not sure they need it. After all, $12,000 a year doesn’t deliver a comfortable life even in the lowest-cost precincts of America, so there would still be plenty of incentive to work. Most of today’s jobs provide very little by way of fulfillment or creativity anyway.
A U.B.I. might give recipients a bit more time to pursue socially beneficial activities, like helping the elderly or attending to kids with special needs or perhaps even starting a new business. Yang suggests it would spur a system of “social credits” in which people trade their spare time by performing various helpful tasks for one another. (I.R.S. be warned.) Surely a U.B.I. would help compensate many people — especially women — for the unpaid labor they already contribute. As Lowrey points out, some 40 million family caregivers in America provide half a trillion dollars of unpaid adult care annually. Child care has become so expensive that one of every three stay-at-home mothers today lives below the poverty line (compared with 14 percent in 1970).
But how could America possibly afford a U.B.I.? A $1,000-a-month grant to every American would cost about $3.9 trillion a year. That’s about $1.3 trillion on top of existing welfare programs — roughly the equivalent of the entire federal budget, or about a fifth of the entire United States economy. Both Yang and Lowrey come up with laundry lists of potential funding sources — from soaking the rich (raising the top tax bracket to 55 percent, enlarging the estate tax and implementing new taxes on wealth, financial transactions and perhaps even the owners of the robots and related devices that are displacing jobs), to instituting a carbon tax or a value-added tax.
Whatever the source of funds, it seems a safe bet that increased automation will allow the economy to continue to grow, making a U.B.I. more affordable. A U.B.I. would itself generate more consumer spending, stimulating additional economic activity. And less poverty would mean less crime, incarceration and other social costs associated with deprivation. “You know what’s really expensive?” Yang asks. “Dysfunction. Revolution.”