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Three Stories on Universal Basic Income

Jan 16 2017

Other news brings you three perspectives on the issue of a guaranteed basic income: “Guaranteed annual income – a Big Idea whose time has yet to arrive” by Glen Hodgson in iPolitics; “An Unconditional Citizen’s Income” by Ursula Huws in Socialist Project; “Universal Basic Income and Radical Populism: Making the Link” by Jay Ogilvy from Stratfor and “Some thoughts about basic or citizenship income” by Gerry Rodgers.

Guaranteed annual income – a Big Idea whose time has yet to arrive

Glen Hodgson*
iPolitics

Although it has a low profile at present, a Guaranteed Annual Income is a fascinating idea that could simultaneously serve economic, social and fiscal interests, and could be embraced across the political spectrum.

There is little talk today among thought-leaders in Canada of a guaranteed annual income, or GAI, as an efficient and effective way to combat poverty — despite mounting evidence of rising social inequality and never-ending concerns about social exclusion. The Conference Board’s recent analysis under How Canada Performs highlighted growing income inequality among Canadians. Although it has a low profile at present, a GAI is a fascinating idea that could simultaneously serve economic, social and fiscal interests, and could be embraced across the political spectrum.

What is a guaranteed annual income? It is a minimum level of income for every individual or family in the country, delivered without condition through the existing income tax system. Earned income above the GAI could be taxed at a relatively low marginal rate, raising net income for the individual and encouraging them to work.

The concept behind a guaranteed annual income comes (surprisingly to some) from free-market economic thinkers. Fifty years ago, Milton Friedman developed an idea called a “negative income tax” to address poverty with minimal government bureaucracy while increasing workforce attachment. Friedman saw personal liberty and minimizing the role of government as fundamental values, and the negative income tax provided a way for him to address the reality of poverty with minimal state intervention. But other prominent economists like James Tobin also supported the GAI concept, which was debated at great length in the U.S. and Canada in the 1970s but never implemented. In Canada, Senator Hugh Segal has been a prominent advocate of a GAI. 1

There are three main advantages to a GAI. First, it would address poverty directly, and in a neutral fashion, via transfers provided through a single existing administrative system—the income tax system. A GAI would streamline existing social welfare programs into one universal system, reducing public administration and intervention with related savings.

Second, a properly-designed GAI could reduce the “welfare wall” of high marginal tax rates on earned income for the working poor. Earned income could be taxed at low marginal rates, providing a strong incentive for GAI recipients to work and earn more. As they work more, GAI recipients would essentially pay for a growing portion of their own GAI, through income taxes on their employment earnings.

And third, a GAI could reduce health care spending on low-income persons. The link between poverty and poor health is widely documented; so if a GAI reduced the prevalence of poverty, it could create better health outcomes and help to slow the rising costs of publicly-funded health care. The current tight fiscal situation means we should be interested in big ideas—like a GAI—that could reduce cost pressures on the health care system.

Nice idea in theory, but would it work in practice? As evidence, a social experiment called “MINCOME” was conducted by the Government of Manitoba in the 1970s, testing the impact of a GAI on the population of Dauphin, Manitoba. All Dauphin families were guaranteed an income of 60 per cent of the low-income cut-off (or LICO), as set by Statistics Canada, a level of income comparable to that under existing welfare schemes. Each dollar of income from other sources was taxed at a relatively high marginal rate of 50 per cent.

An excellent recent paper by Evelyn Forget provides analysis of the health and social impacts of the MINCOME experiment.2 Using data sources that (remarkably) had never before been assembled, Ms Forget demonstrates that hospitalization rates of MINCOME recipients fell by 8.5 per cent relative to similar non-recipients. Visits to doctors declined, especially for mental health concerns—meaning that the GAI appears to have produced a significant reduction in provincial health spending on the target population. More adolescents stayed in school to grade 12. Marital stability was maintained, and there was no evidence that fertility rates increased, or that birth outcomes changed. In short, the MINCOME experiment appears to have had some important success in terms of improving population health and reducing health costs, with few negative social costs.

If the MINCOME results could be reproduced and generalized across Canadian society, a GAI might produce sizable net fiscal savings, especially for provinces. A GAI that delivered income support through the tax system would allow the existing provincial welfare bureaucracy to be sharply reduced. Improved population health for lower-income persons could create savings on health care, through reduced hospitalization and fewer visits to doctors. And if the GAI system were properly calibrated to lower the welfare wall, greater labour force attachment and higher net income tax revenues could be achieved.

Some important obstacles would have to be addressed. An exceptional degree of federal-provincial cooperation would be required on fiscal arrangements if a guaranteed annual income were to become a reality. The costs and benefits of a GAI system would have to be assessed carefully, with detailed research and economic modelling of key elements like the level of income support and the marginal tax rate for earned income.

We expect that economic factors—like continued fiscal deficits, ever-rising provincial health care costs and tightening labour markets—would be the political drivers for GAI reform, more than social concerns. But there are solid economic, fiscal and social reasons to give a GAI serious consideration. If properly designed and implemented, the introduction of a GAI could be one of those rare moments in public policy when a win-win-win outcome is achieved, for society and for the individuals and families affected.

While deeper analysis would be needed to underpin the policy debate, a guaranteed annual income remains an appealing “big idea” whose time has yet to arrive politically. There is no better time than right now to heat up the debate.

1 See Hugh Segal, “Guaranteed Annual Income: Why Milton Friedman and Bob Stanfield Were Right”, Policy Options, April 2008.
2 “The Town with No Poverty”, Canadian Public Policy, September 2011.

*Glen Hodgson has served as Senior Vice-President and Chief Economist of The Conference Board of Canada since 2004. He is the Board’s chief spokesperson on economic issues and is responsible for overseeing macroeconomic outlook products, tourism, and custom research. He specializes specializes in international economic and financial issues.

An Unconditional Citizen’s Income

by Ursula Huws
Socialist Project

In these straitened times, the idea of a basic income, granted unconditionally to every citizen, from cradle to grave, feels utopian. How on earth could it be paid for, we wonder. Wouldn’t everyone just stop working? Where would we be then?

I first came across it, in the optimistic late 1960s, in a form that materialized in the so-called ‘fifth demand’ of the Women’s Liberation movement (formulated in 1971) that called for ‘financial and legal independence’ for all women. This had an enormous appeal: not only is it degrading for anyone to have to beg or manipulate someone else for their means of subsistence, and materially damaging to that person if the money is not forthcoming; it also destroys the character of human relationships if they are embedded in relations of dependency. Unequal power relations like those between a husband and a dependent wife, parents and dependent teenagers, able-bodied providers and their disabled dependents can lead to a festering mess of guilt, gratitude and unexpressed anger. The results can range from dishonesty and depression to emotional and physical abuse. In a money-based society, an independent source of income is a pre-condition for human dignity.

Before going any further I should declare my personal position on this question. I have written intermittently about the idea of a basic minimum income since the 1990s, and would class myself as broadly in favour of the principle, though with some important reservations. In the 1990s I wrote a report[1] on the subject for the Citizen’s Income Trust (CIT), the UK affiliate of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), but then backed away from it for a while, for reasons that I will spell out later (under ‘risks’). Since then I have come back to the idea and am now (albeit not as active as I should be, and with some reservations I will come on to) a trustee of CIT. But I am writing here in a personal capacity and my opinions do not necessarily reflect the CIT’s position.

Keeping Body and Soul Together
What I have written below is based on the assumption that a benefit would be paid unconditionally to all citizens, regardless of age, replacing most existing welfare benefits but also the personal tax allowance (at present, the first £10,000 of income for each person is disregarded for income tax, providing a ‘benefit’ of £2,000 per person in tax not paid at 20%). Whilst each person would receive the benefit, therefore, they would also pay tax on all income. The level of the benefit, the rate of tax, and the degree to which that tax is graduated would of course be political decisions and I am not going to make detailed proposals here. But my assumption is that the level of benefit would be enough to keep body and soul together and take care of basic needs but not more.

The Advantages
* It would save the state a huge amount of money, currently spent on processing claims and policing benefit claimants and would eliminate the need for many of the present complex array of benefits (child benefit, sickness benefit, pensions, maternity benefits etc.).
* Because children would be eligible for it, as well as adults, it would be broadly redistributive toward households with children and thus help to alleviate the shockingly high levels of child poverty in this country.
* Because there is no household unit of assessment it might well encourage people to live more collectively, sharing resources with friends and extended families, which would also have environmental benefits and take some pressure off the housing market.
* It would enhance inter-generational solidarity.
* It would make it possible for people to change their working hours flexibly and combine more than one job much more easily than at present.
* Life would become much smoother and simpler for freelancers.
* It would make it much easier to manage illnesses and disabilities and juggle caring responsibilities with work.
* It would also make it much easier to move in and out of education.
* The judgement about what is, or is not ‘work’ would no longer be made by a bureaucratic authority but by the individual. If you want to live on very little and devote your life to art, music, prayer, blogging, archaeology, chasing an elusive scientific concept, conserving rare plants or charitable work, that would be your choice.
* This is not just good for those individuals but spiritually enriching for society as a whole.
* The labour market would become a little less one-sided. Employers might have to offer a bit more pay to entice people into unattractive jobs. Though, on the other hand, they might find people queuing up to fill the ones that offer high levels of personal satisfaction and reward.

The Risks
Giving everybody money plays along with the grain of an increasingly market-based economy. The risk is that individual purchases made in the market will drive out collectively-provided services. Recommodification might obliterate decommodification.

Globalization raises serious questions about what constitutes citizenship. It is perhaps no accident, at least in Europe, that the countries with the most generous welfare states also tend to have the most tightly-controlled borders (think of Denmark). Combining a basic citizen’s income policy with non-racist immigration policies presents some serious challenges.

Conclusion
Although, in my opinion, it would bring huge benefits, an unconditional citizen’s income is not a magic solution to all political, social and economic problems. I believe that it could be one ingredient in the development of a kind of welfare state that is deserving of the name. However it is only one ingredient among several. In particular, it would have to be combined with:

* an increased minimum wage;
* increased investment in universally available public services that are free to the user, including health, childcare, education and social care;
* a recognition that the housing market is so distorted that continuing extra help will be required to house the poorest people in many parts of the country;
* a reformed tax system.

Ursula Huws is Director of Analytica Social and Economic Research; Editor, Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation; Professor of Labour and Globalisation, University of Hertfordshire, and maintains a blog at ursulahuws.wordpress.com where this article first appeared.

Endnotes:

1. Ursula Huws (1997) Flexibility and Security: Towards a new European balance, London: Citizen’s Income Trust.

Universal Basic Income and Radical Populism: Making the Link

Jay Ogilvy
Stratfor

What are we utterly wrong about today? Think of the way we look back at practices like slavery and colonialism that were so commonly accepted in their time but were later rejected as offenses against basic morality. What is it about our time that will be recalled, centuries from now, with as much opprobrium and amazement? What do we take for granted that our descendants will renounce?

A good candidate is our general acceptance of extreme economic inequality—not so much extreme wealth, but extreme poverty. In a world as wealthy as ours, how can we still allow so many to exist in conditions of abject poverty?

In fact we are already on our way toward eliminating poverty. Much of the credit goes to China, where the number of those in extreme poverty dropped by 680 million between 1981 and 2010, from 84 percent of the population in 1980 to 10 percent today.

What about the rest of the world? Linda Oiu of PolitiFact writes: “According to the World Bank, 1.9 billion people (or 37.1 percent of the global population) lived on less than $1.90 a day in 1990, compared to a projected 702 million (9.6 percent) in 2015. That’s a 74.1 percent decline in 25 years.”

What will it take to eliminate the poverty that remains? Given enough time, market forces might be sufficient. But another approach could accelerate the process: a guaranteed basic income.

Before rejecting this idea out of hand as a lefty redistribution scheme, consider that it has support from conservatives from Milton Friedman to Charles Murray. While hardly in the mainstream yet, the concept of a guaranteed basic income has a long history, and it is gaining adherents around the world.

A Utopian Notion
The idea goes all the way back to Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516. And that is part of its problematic legacy: It seems so utopian. French philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet proposed a form of “social insurance” at the time of the French Revolution … but he was imprisoned and sentenced to death. Thomas Paine, a political activist and a founding father of the United States, took up his friend’s cause, writing in 1796 that payments should be made “to every person, rich or poor,” “because it is in lieu of the natural inheritance, which, as a right, belongs to every man, over and above the property he may have created, or inherited from those who did.”

But even if this baffling and seemingly wasteful notion that payments should go to the rich as well as to the poor was easy to accept, its implementation was not. It turns out that trying to decide the difference between the rich and the poor, and who is therefore deserving of payments and who is not, is more difficult than it might first appear. Indeed, “means testing” requires a massive and expensive bureaucracy. As Matt Zwolinski puts it in a paper from the Cato Institute:

“Conditions are put on welfare in order to ensure that assistance goes to the deserving poor, and not to the undeserving. But distinguishing between the deserving and undeserving is difficult business, and requires a variety of invasive, demoralizing, and degrading inspections into the intimate details of applicants’ lives. ‘Fill out this form, tell us about that man you live with, pee in this cup, and submit to spot inspections of your home by our social workers, or else.’”

For those on the right, the main appeal of a basic income is the prospect of eliminating the welfare state bureaucracy and thereby reducing the size of government.

Three Waves
During the 20th century there were three discernible waves of interest in basic income. The first wave started early, with philosophers and authors from Bertrand Russell to Virginia Woolf writing about the idea without actually giving it a name. In the United States, “share the wealth” was set to be a central plank in Huey P. Long’s run for presidency in 1936 before his assassination in 1935. (Is this idea cursed?)

After the first wave of interest subsided, a second wave began in the 1960s. U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “war on poverty.” The Canadian government published several reports on “guaranteed annual income” in the 1970s. President Nixon supported a “negative income tax.” In 1971, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a version of the negative income tax, but it failed in the Senate by 10 votes. (Cursed again.) By the time Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to power in the 1980s, the second wave had subsided.

The third wave originates in Europe. A group of academics and activists interested in the idea of basic income created the Basic Income European Network, which internationalized itself in 2004 and became the Basic Income Earth Network. “Yet, as late as the 2000s, UBI [universal basic income] was so far out of the political mainstream that the movement felt more like a discussion group than a movement,” writes Karl Widerquist in a 2016 paper titled “Basic Income’s Third Wave.” Widerquist continues: “To people who weren’t paying any special attention, the third wave became visible in 2015 or 2016. Volunteers at Basic Income News had been noticing substantial increases in mainstream media attention every year since at least 2011.”

Solution and Opportunity
Michael Howard, coordinator of BIEN’s U.S. branch, writes about his experience with the movement on the BIEN website:

“During these roughly 25 years, I have seen basic income move from a novel idea, under discussion by academics and a few visionary activists in response to unprecedented changes in our world, to a policy idea being tested in South Africa, Brazil, the Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland, India, and Canada, and on the radar of mainstream policy makers in the US like Robert Reich and even President Obama.”

Why the sudden increase in interest in an idea that’s been around, as we’ve seen, for such a long time? Has the curse been lifted? The answer to this question is not simple. It is multifaceted, and precisely in its multiplicity lies its intrigue. Further from the BIEN website:

“Many reasons have all been invoked in Basic Income’s favor, including liberty and equality, efficiency and community, common ownership of the Earth and equal sharing in the benefits of technical progress, the flexibility of the labor market and the dignity of the poor, the fight against inhumane working conditions, against the desertification of the countryside and against interregional inequalities, the viability of cooperatives and the promotion of adult education, autonomy from bosses, husbands and bureaucrats.”

To which we could add better parenting. Think about the unwed mother who will not have to look for that second or third job but will instead now have more time for her children.
Part of the excitement animating current interest in basic income lies in the fact that we still don’t know what unpredictable consequences might come from its implementation. Would people use free cash to smoke pot and play video games? Or would they use their cushion of security to pursue riskier occupations in art or education? We simply don’t yet know what might emerge from a range of tests about to get underway.

In addition to our ignorance, another part of the excitement animating current interest in basic income lies in a sense of urgency. Thought leaders like Elon Musk worry that advances in artificial intelligence, automation and robotics are about to put millions of people out of work. Futurists have worried in the past about the prospect of technology leading to unemployment. What would people do with all of their leisure time? In the past, their concerns were misplaced; new technologies created new and better jobs. But this time, Musk and others worry, the machines are getting so smart, mere humans may soon be redundant.

The prospect of looming unemployment is a problem to which basic income is not just an economic solution but a more radical opportunity. “Basic income is about wanting to embrace automation,” said Albert Wenger, a partner at the venture capital firm Union Square Ventures. In a FiveThirtyEight essay titled “What Would Happen if We Just Gave People Money?”, Andrew Flowers reports:
“Wenger wants less time spent on tasks that could be automated and more time spent on issues he thinks are insufficiently addressed: fighting climate change, exploring space, preventing the next global pandemic. Like the backers of basic income in Switzerland, he thinks providing for basic needs will allow innovation to flourish. With a basic income, he said, ‘you’re put in charge of your time. You’ll have 100 percent of your time available to you.’”

So the concept of a universal basic income is not just the solution to the problem of poverty and unemployment. Precisely in the multiplicity of its rationales and implications, it holds out the prospect of a radical paradigm shift in the way we understand the relationships among work, wealth and human flourishing.

Andrew Flowers also writes about Daniel Straub, one of the backers of a failed movement to initiate a basic income in Switzerland:

“Everyone, rich or poor, employed or out of work would get the same amount of money. This arrangement would provide a path toward a new way of living: If people no longer had to worry about making ends meet, they could pursue the lives they want to live … ‘We limit ourselves too much,’ Straub said. ‘I’m interested in consciousness, expanding consciousness. And basic income is a wonderful tool for that — it challenges a lot of assumptions we have.’”

As expansive as Straub’s hopes may be toward higher human potential, it’s worth also noting how the implications of a basic income come down to earth to the fundamentals of geopolitics. Writing about Guy Standing, a British economist who co-founded BIEN, Flowers continues in his FiveThirtyEight essay:

“Basic income, Standing says, is more than good policy. He calls it ‘essential,’ given that more and more people in developed economies are living ‘a life of chronic economic insecurity.’ He sees this insecurity fueling populist politicians, boosting far-right parties across Europe and the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. Economic stagnation increases the appeal of extreme politicians, and unless those insecurities are addressed, Standing said, that appeal is only going to get stronger.”

From a Dec. 17 New York Times article about a basic income experiment in Finland, we learn:

“The search has gained an extraordinary sense of urgency as a wave of reactionary populism sweeps the globe, casting the elite establishment as the main beneficiary of economic forces that have hurt the working masses. Americans’ election of Donald J. Trump, who has vowed to radically constrain trade, and the stunning vote in Britain to abandon the European Union, have resounded as emergency sirens for global leaders. They must either update capitalism to share the spoils more equitably, or risk watching angry mobs dismantle the institutions that have underpinned economic policy since the end of World War II.”

This brief column can’t begin to get into the issue of how universal basic income can be financed—that is a whole other subject. But a swing through the literature on basic income, plus a hard look at the imminence of technologically induced unemployment — according to a study from Oxford University and the Martin School, “47 percent of jobs in the US are ‘at risk’ of being automated in the next 20 years” — should be enough to explain why Jennifer Broadhurst wrote in The Christian Science Monitor just last week, “When it comes to ideas moving from the fringes to the political mainstream, this is one that is making the journey.”

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Jay Ogilvy joined Stratfor’s board of contributors in January 2015. In 1979, he left a post as a professor of philosophy at Yale to join SRI, the former Stanford Research Institute, as director of research. Dr. Ogilvy co-founded the Global Business Network of scenario planners in 1987. He is the former dean and chief academic officer of San Francisco’s Presidio Graduate School. Dr. Ogilvy has published nine books, including Many Dimensional Man, Creating Better Futures, and Living Without a Goal.

Some thoughts about basic or citizenship income
Gerry Rodgers

The idea that all citizens should receive an income, adequate to cover their basic living costs, without conditions, is not new. But it has in practice been a marginal, utopian idea without much political impact. In the past few years, however, it has received increasing attention. In a referendum on the subject in Switzerland it gathered a respectable although minority vote. One of the candidates for the French Socialist Party’s 2017 presidential nomination made it a central issue of his campaign. Green parties often favour the idea. There are a few local experiments under way.

Advocates of the idea see it as a way to realize the right of all citizens to the wherewithal of a decent life, a way to give people the freedom for creative and personal use of their time free of the obligation to work, a means to compensate for an increasingly jobless economy, an instrument to eliminate poverty without having to address the overall pattern of inequality of income and wealth. Libertarians see it as a way to reduce the presence of the state, and to free capitalists of minimum wages and other labour market regulation; egalitarians see it as a route to gender equality and to eliminating the extremes of class differentiation. Existing social security systems, it is argued, are far from universal and need a heavy bureaucratic mechanism to establish and supervise entitlements; a basic income can replace existing systems at much lower cost.

There are many arguments here, and different proponents often have different concepts of what basic income really means. But despite its attractions there are some serious problems.

A fundamental difficulty is that this is a strategy for distribution without a strategy for production. Existing social security systems are intended to complement the labour market, not to replace it. They are built on the assumption that citizens should earn a living from labour, as long as employment is available. Without this assumption, and without the need to work, it is necessary to ask where the basic income is going to come from – whether the level of economic activity will be sufficient to sustain this transfer of income. This is one reason why Tony Atkinson, for example, favoured a “participation” income rather than a citizen income, one that is conditional on participation in productive work or other socially endorsed activity, at least within the prime ages. There is a moral issue here – whether rights and obligations should be considered together – as well as a practical one, for our societies and economies are still based on the principle that we engage in work.

This is in some sense the mirror image of the argument that basic income is needed because people are increasingly being excluded from the labour market by technological change. That argument can be contested, of course, because it has resurfaced at regular intervals since the industrial revolution, and has always been seen off by a rise in economic demand. But suppose we take it at its face value. If production is to be maintained with declining employment, we need investment in capital-intensive manufacturing and capital-labour substitution in services. This will only occur, in a capitalist economy, if this investment generates sufficient profit. These production activities will also need some highly skilled workers, who will have to be well paid to attract them into the labour force. This suggests the prospect of a society with three classes: capitalist or capital owners, living off the returns from their investment; a class of skilled and well paid workers in various occupations; and those who live on their basic income, perhaps combined with occasional low paid work. That may or may not be better than what we have at the moment, but it doesn’t seem particularly desirable. It also raises additional questions about how the economic model will work – for example, what will happen to existing low skill employment?

In fact, regardless of whether or not growth is jobless, it is not at all clear what would happen to the labour market. The outcome would surely be quite different in Switzerland and Swaziland, and would depend on the level the basic income is set. Yet it is in the labour market that solutions must be found. There is a risk that a basic income could distract effort from extending worker protection and providing effective employment security, which require action in the production system and in the design of labour market regulation.

Implicit in basic income is the idea that this is a transfer of cash, so that individuals and households will spend their basic incomes in the market on the basis of their own preferences. But even in high income economies, the market does not always work well. There are at least four major areas where distributing cash may not suffice: education, health, housing and food. For education and health it is widely accepted that a public system is needed, and that it needs to be financed by the state. So that could not be part of basic income. But housing too is very poorly served by the market. High and low rents in the same market, the need for administrative controls, rapacious landlords, shortages of supply, differences in entitlements between owners and renters, there are many reasons why housing is a nightmare for many people. This calls for state intervention in the housing market rather than just a basic allowance for housing costs. This is less true of food, for which the market works better in high income countries. But in low income settings market imperfections are manifold: food markets are subject to erratic swings in supplies and prices, sellers can exploit extreme need, markets for some goods are captured by particular groups. In these countries public food distribution systems and subsidies are often needed. The more general point is that basic income has to be considered alongside the broader provisioning of public goods.

Another problem lies in the word basic. It assumes that there is some sort of line that can be drawn, “enough”, meeting some physical and social targets. But we all aspire to more. That might seem secondary, but this was the rock on which the “basic needs” development strategy of the 1970s foundered. The less developed countries at the time saw basic needs as limiting them, a way of preserving existing inequalities. They wanted more. Likewise, if basic income is not to be seen as limiting, it needs to be set high. But then the question of cost becomes significant. If the basic income is set low and replaces all existing social security transfers the net cost would probably be manageable, provided that the transfer is recovered from higher income groups through progressive income taxation. Most OECD countries already spend between 10 and 20 per cent of GDP on social security and social protection. But a basic income beyond the bare minimum could rapidly become an intolerable charge on the state.

One practical issue is that the right to basic income is necessarily linked to citizenship or residence. But in an unequal world, what is basic in one country is high in another. Would migrants and refugees have access to a basic income? There is likely to be popular resistance. But if not, and more generally if there are other classes of people who are excluded for one reason or another, this becomes an additional source of inequality and marginalization.

The case for a basic income is much easier to make for groups outside the main working ages: children, and perhaps young people in full time education and training; and older people. And in fact, there are already policies of this type in place in different countries – family allowances for children (sometimes conditional on school enrolment), minimum pensions. It would be better for basic income policies to aim at improving income guarantees for these groups. For children, the problem is of course that the allowance is paid to the parents (but that is also true of a wider basic income). There is a case for designing the allowance in such a way that it has to be devoted to the needs of children, which may call for specific policies for food, education, housing and clothing.

The notion of a basic income does nothing to deal with the distribution of wealth. In some ways, the idea of basic wealth is more attractive than basic income. A large proportion of individuals have no significant wealth, and this is a major source of insecurity. It has been suggested that all citizens should be given – at birth, or adulthood – a share in national wealth, financed by a tax on wealth or inheritance. This could be done in a way that protects the wealth from frivolous dispersion, and could help individuals overcome personal difficulties during their lives and invest in developing their capabilities. It would also have less impact on the labour market. But that is another story.

The idea of a universal basic income is appealing, but it is not obvious that this will give a better result than improvements to existing social security systems. And surely if a big push is needed, it should be focused on ensuring access for all to productive employment which provides decent incomes. This is where the need for fresh thinking and new methods is greatest.

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