Universal Basic Income: A Revolutionary Idea That Could Gain Bipartisan Support

When most politicians talk about bipartisan consensus, they generally mean policies that business-friendly centrists in both parties get behind. These include the usual Bowles-Simpson style shibboleths so beloved of corporate supremacists like Pete Peterson: deficit reduction, the slashing of earned benefits, welfare reform, tax “simplification” designed to benefit the wealthy, and the like.

Sometimes even good Democrats are tempted to collaborate with this agenda in order to “get things done” and push for grand bargains that they hope will allow them to notch some minor legislative “wins” even if it means dialing back universal benefits and ultimately making it easier for wealthy elites to slice away a bigger piece of the pie.

But that’s not really a bipartisan compromise. That’s more a matter of corporate lobbyists deciding what they think the country needs and then finding the most pliable, least ideologically driven members of Congress to do their bidding in the name of responsible governance, even as they marginalize politicians on both sides who try to govern based on a coherent set of principles.

Real bipartisan compromise is more often to be found in common ground at the other edges of both parties, where unconventional solutions to intractable problems can sometimes be found. A good example of this includes the push to audit the federal reserve, which got traction with support from the likes of both the progressive Alan Grayson and the libertarian Ron Paul. We have also begun to see a beneficial unified left-right alliance (opposed by so-called centrists in both parties like McCain and Feinstein) on reducing military spending and pulling back from military commitments overseas in order to reallocate more funding for domestic use.

Another budding left-right alliance is over universal basic income: the revolutionary idea of simply giving a means-test-free direct cash transfer to every single adult citizen. As usual, Europe has the jump on America when it comes to redefining and expanding the social contract. Switzerland will be holding a referendum on the issue today, and Finland and Netherlands will be beginning experimental pilot programs next year.

There are two big drivers behind the push for a basic income. The first is the twin pressures of globalization and automation on the labor market: as jobs are lost and wages are reduced due to automation, 3D printing, online purchase and distribution channels and old-fashioned labor offshoring, the profits from these increased efficiencies tend to redound to the top tenth of one percent of incomes. It will therefore become necessary to distribute some of that flow back to displaced workers–many of whom will simply be unable to find a job with decent wages in the new economy. The second driver is the increasing awareness that there is massive untapped human potential going to waste among people stuck in dead-end jobs that make them miserable, are ill-suited for their talents, and could easily be eliminated or automated. Giving people the freedom to live in basic dignity while developing their real talents and doing work that is not currently rewarded in the market economy (e.g., producing art, creating inventions or fighting climate change) could be a significant net benefit to society.

As much as universal basic income sounds like a liberal fantasy, it actually has many conservative admirers including famed free-market economist Milton Friedman. Charitably, conservatives who decry waste and redundancy in government see in universal basic income a way to simplify social welfare and eliminate wasteful overlapping bureaucracies that soak up tax dollars while providing targeted benefits that are often difficult to apply for an expensive to administer.

Of course, some conservatives like Charles Murray are growing fond of it for the very reason that many progressives fear and distrust it: they see it as a way to eliminate much-needed benefits like Medicaid and SNAP vouchers, thereby shredding the social safety net and the ability of government to regulate costs in insurance and healthcare among other industries.

The devil, of course, is in the details. Huge fights loom over the level at which the income would be set; whether it would be truly universal or neoliberally means-tested; which existing forms of social welfare would be scuttled and which ones maintained; and with what taxation policy it would be funded.

Still, the incentives on both the left and right are tremendous. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, recognizing the future of job displacement in the artificial intelligences they are creating, are eager to maintain the basic engines of capitalism and keep the pitchforks and torches at bay. Conservatives want to reduce wasteful and overlapping bureaucracies. And many progressives would like to see a universal expansion of the safety net, and a gradual move away from they see today as late stage capitalism: a doomed economic model based on consumption and asset bubbles in the face of structurally declining wages.

The path to a bipartisan consensus on the beginnings of a new economic model is beginning to emerge. But it looks nothing like the corporate centrism that defines what most pundits today think of as bipartisanship.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.