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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.” 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.) 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.
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.
“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. 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.” Add to that list of illustrious names the likes of Slack’s Stewart Butterfield, Y Combinator’s Sam Altman, and failed New Republic steward Chris Hughes, and the support for UBI among Silicon Valley’s billionaire class becomes distressingly widespread. 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?
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. 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.
The 2016 American presidential election was the high-water mark in bullshit artistry, a swindle on a national scale with apocalyptic global implications. 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. To call the billionaires on their bullshit: Universal basic income is a promise to make America great again.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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?
Just as the ostensible simplicity of UBI obscures its harmful latent potential, the concept’s promised universality would likely be anything but. Presumably, eligibility for a universal basic income program would require official citizenship status, a distinction denied to tens of millions of undocumented immigrants, many of them poor, in the United States and abroad. Without concomitant changes to immigration legislation and policy, UBI could worsen the disadvantages that undocumented immigrants already face, enriching and empowering those with whom they already compete for jobs, housing, and social services. It’s difficult to imagine a factually realized universal basic income without attendant exclusions, the inflexible rules and language dictating who may or may not enroll in the program. No one can say where, exactly, the dividing line would fall, but it’s safe to assume that felons, who cannot vote under present law, would, alongside everyone else deemed unworthy, find themselves on the outside looking in. 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.
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.
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. 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. Billionaires and politicians already possess everything that a UBI would provide for their customers and constituents: exemplary healthcare, comfortable housing, an income many times greater than the cost of living. Since they’re primarily responsible for driving up those costs, they shouldn’t obstruct this rare opportunity for the rest of society to receive the basest compensation.
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. 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.