Basic Income Q&A: How to Pay for It, Which Country Will Go First, and More (Rebroadcast)

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In this episode, which initially aired last October, Jim and Owen answer listener questions from how to pay for basic income, which country will implement a basic income first and how we will get there. You can send your questions to the Universal Income Project on Facebook or Twitter, or tweet at Owen (@owenpoindexter) or Jim (@dr_pugh).

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Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh.

Owen: A while back we asked you for questions about the basic income, and a number of you responded. In this episode, we are just going to go through a few of those.

Jim: Unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to get to everyone’s question, but we did have a few that we thought would be good ones to start with. Here goes.

Owen: Alright. The first one is from Abigail Irwin, it came in through Facebook, “Here is the one big question I keep getting: how is it going to be funded?”

Jim: I would say for me as well, this is a question that people ask all the time. Since we’re talking about such a big program, people are naturally curious about, “Alright, where does the funding come from here?” One thing that I’ve mentioned before that I think is really important to remember is a lot of the conceptions we have right now about what the government “can or cannot afford” are really not based on reality.

That if you look at our economy and how much it’s grown over recent years, there’s actually so much money out there. Our Gross Domestic Product over the last 15 years has grown by four trillion dollars. Just taking a big picture snapshot, it’s important to know that there is money out there.

Owen: Yes and on top of that, I’ll say that while I think it’s important to talk about how are we going to pay for things, the government is very willing to drop billions of dollars on some programs without having this discussion. It’s only around new big programs where we do say, “Okay, well, where is that money going to come from because we haven’t already baked that in.”

Jim: We do see often around things like military spending, spending tens of billions of dollars ready at the drop of a hat is not uncommon, but as soon as we talk about billions or even hundreds of millions of dollars for social programs, people suddenly get very nervous about how we’re going to actually afford that.

Owen: And getting more into, “okay, how is it going to be funded?” — obviously, there are a number of ways you could do it. If you structure it as a negative income tax, you could just have a tax that runs backwards essentially. At a certain income level, you receive money instead of pay money in. That’s one way to do it where you don’t have to touch anything else.

Jim: Something I would add to that is, with negative income tax, one concern that I know people have is that if you’re actually not giving the same amount to different people, that could complicate the logistics figuring out, “alright, how do we actually assess someone’s income in the moment and decide alright, how big is the check we mail to them?” You can actually accomplish exactly the same thing using the tax code. You can structure it so that you give everyone the same amount of money every month regardless of how much they’re making but then make sure that you’re actually clawing back more of that money earlier on, based on how much they’re making when you’re actually assessing taxes. The same way you do now as far as withholding from paychecks.

Owen: Right, and just to offer a crude version of that, you could impose a flat tax and the revenue from that would just be turned into a dividend that would go equally to everyone. So everyone is paying the same percentage of their income into the basic income fund, but the way it works out is that at a certain point, you are paying and receiving about the same amount, and everyone above that ends up paying more, but they still get the dividend.

Jim: To give some more specific, since I want to actually make sure that we do give an answer to this question, there are actually a lot of different ideas for how we fund this out there. Depending on who you ask, you’re going to get different answers. Some of the most common ones that I hear proposed, one is the idea of — I think, particularly as the starting point — looking at the Carbon Dividend.

We’ve talked about that in the past. There was a proposal in California. There is currently, in fact, a campaign in Washington, DC around taxing carbon and paying out to revenue that comes in as a universal income, as universal dividends to people in the region. That could at the very least provide us with a powerful first step towards basic income by saying, “alright we’re setting up the system that gives everyone equally regular payments of money.”

Owen: I think that Carbon Dividend idea is my favorite in this whole space because it does start to address climate change as well. It takes this idea that we have shared resources, in this case, the air and the environment and that we are all invested in this whether we want to be or not. By taxing the use of the environment essentially which is a shared resource then we can all benefit from it.

Along the same lines, though very different, is the Financial Transactions Tax. That’s another one that gets thrown in periodically. We all benefit from the infrastructure of our financial system, and some businesses and people use that quite a lot to conduct business, trade stocks, whatever. By having just a very small fee on financial transactions, you could also do the same thing and fund the basic income.

Jim: Another one that often gets discussed is the idea that a Land Value Tax, where you’re assessing the value of any given piece of property that either a person or a corporation might own, and then saying, “we’re going to set some low level of taxation so that every month or every year, you are paying a certain amount based on the value of that piece of land.” Not just the land itself, but what’s actually on the land.

One thing that I think is really interesting about the Land Value Tax is it actually starts to get closer to the idea of a wealth tax. Something that is taxing not just how much money people are bringing in, but how much they actually own. Land isn’t a perfect measure of someone’s wealth, but it tends to be pretty close a lot of the time. That could help not only with providing the support that you get from basic income but also to share prosperity and share wealth across the country by really looking at that as the source of the funding.

Owen: Right. I think this is an important concept because while income is easy to track, or easy enough, a lot of the disparity that we see in the world is through wealth, and an actual wealth tax is very hard to administer because unless you have some way to track all forms of wealth, people are going to be able to move it around to not be taxed. But land is always there. You can’t pick it up and move it somewhere else. It does tend to be a good proxy for a holding place for wealth, especially in California, where we are.

Lastly, we can touch on general progressive taxation. We mentioned the income tax before but it doesn’t have to be a flat tax. It could be a progressive tax that increases as you go into higher income levels. There’s also a capital gains tax and perhaps others that you could mention.

Jim: Yes. Touching on the capital gains, right now we have the level of that set considerably lower than income. What that’s effectively doing is saying, sitting on wealth, you and the amount of money you get from that, you’re actually paying less in taxes and someone who’s working for the money.

Owen: You see those incentives pretty clearly in the market.

Jim: Right, exactly. That’s actually encouraging people to hoard rather than to spend. Also, again, if you look at the various campaigns that are going on around different policies, you’ll hear people talking about closing tax loopholes as well, particularly for corporations. There’s a lot of ways that companies are able to avoid what is the supposed tax rate that they might owe, due to how complex the tax code is in many places.

Owen: Hopefully, that gives you a sense of how we might fund the basic income. There are a lot of paths to do it, a lot of different sources you might look to. It should be said there’s no one answer to this. I’ve said this before the first step in creating a basic income is deciding that we want one. Once you have that destination, there are a bunch of paths to get there.

Jim: Right. I think it’s important to remember that oftentimes when we talk about these big bold policies, we know they’re going to cost a lot, but in most cases, we don’t necessarily have to go through all the math right upfront. It’s important to just know that yes, the funds exist out there. Let’s think about what this is going to do for people and then if this is actually something that’s going to help folks, let’s fight to make it happen.

Owen: Okay. Next question comes from Darcy Lengthier — hoping I’m pronouncing your name right, Darcy. “Which country will be next?” I have a couple guesses, and they’re pretty unoriginal.

[laughter]

Jim: Yes, we’ll probably have similar answers here. I would say any country that’s currently doing a pilot for basic income is probably pretty high on the list for ones that have potential to enact one. We talked about this before, but Finland launched their pilots in the last year. Ontario in Canada just launched their pilot. We do have the pilot happening in Oakland through Y Combinator, but it’s a little bit of a different situation since it’s a private entity funding it. I wouldn’t read quite as much into that as these programs that are actually being initiated by national governments and what that signifies as far as intentions.

Owen: I think my first pick in the draft would be Canada because they’re doing a pilot, and it feels like this federal government that seems like it would be ready to try something like this at least in terms of a Carbon Dividend or even like an Alaska style, natural wealth kind of thing.

Jim: That said, I think that there certainly are other countries out there talking seriously about it. Particularly for some of the smaller countries, if the people in power decided alright, this is a priority for us, if it was a country that was in a situation that have a reasonable amount of wealth or a lower cost of living for their population, they could potentially move pretty quickly to enact something.

Owen: I wouldn’t put Switzerland at the top of the list right now, but they have already had the referendum. It’s a small country with a lot of wealth. The math is a little easier there.

Jim: I think the big answer is, we don’t know. I think as far as what country will do pilots next, we haven’t talked about it much, but Barcelona is in the process of getting a pilot going. I do know there’s a lot of others that are in these discussion phases if not quite ready to launch.

Owen: The one last thing I’ll throw in there is, if you were to say the five most likely countries or the field, I’m probably going to take the field. I could see this coming out of somewhere unexpected or somewhere we’re not figured out right now.

Jim: Absolutely. Our third question is, “what kind of timeline are we looking at for America as a whole to implement basic income?” That came from Tim Kelly on Twitter.

Owen: Maybe December, January?

[laughter]

Jim: They’re just about there.

Owen: More seriously, I think one step might be to have this become more mainstream within the Left / Democratic Party in the US. If and when the Democrats take back power, maybe we could see something like a Carbon Dividend. I could see that happening in the 2020s, to give a decade.

Jim: If we can have it in 2020, I would be very happy. That is probably a little sooner than I was–

Owen: It’s a bit aggressive.

Jim: I would say, I generally tell people that if those of us who support the policy approach this right, 15 years seems like a reasonable timeline. That said, I think this is a kind of policy where it’s going to be very, very far off until it’s not. I think that there’s going to be nothing linear about the progression of the basic income movement. It’s going to be those of us who are in the space talking about it, getting more people hearing about it. Really writing the playbook for how this might happen, and then it’s going to be a question of when is that moment.

When is that moment when suddenly people are like, “Oh, we need something really different. We actually need to guarantee fundamental economic security for people. How do we do that?” If at that point, we have really set the stage for basic income, it could happen really, really fast.

Owen: I agree. I used to think of self-driving cars and trucks as the moment when everything was going to flip. I have actually backed off that a little bit just because they’re already on the road. This is already happening, and it hasn’t really catalyzed a discussion in a way that means policy is going to happen very soon, but I think we might see something at some point where one day Amazon lays off thousands or tens of thousands of workers. It’s them, plus Google, plus others, and it creates some amount of desperation where people are looking for a policy fix.

Jim: I will say, I don’t think we haven’t seen any significant amount of layoffs around self-driving vehicles.

Owen: Right. That could still happen.

Jim: It’s something that I know at this point, a lot of people think could be coming relatively soon, but how that will actually proceed? I think we’ll have to see. I will say I think I’ve been struck by how much people’s perception about the fundamental characteristics of work have changed in the last couple of years. That two years back, I felt like most people believed that the way that we do work would stay — I think stay is actually the wrong word because it was already shifting at that point, but could remain similar to how we did that in the 20th century.

Now, I think more and more people recognized that that model for how our labor space operates just is — there isn’t a way to go back. We are in uncharted territories here. We do need to be thinking more outside the box as far as what are the right policies to provide people with security they need.

Owen: I think just to add a little bit onto that. The moments that might catalyze something might just be something where we realize that we are in uncharted territory, the collectively “we.” Because I think we’re already there. We are already into the woods, and we’ve lost our map. But you don’t necessarily know that until some day, you woke up, and you realize you’ve lost the path. Sort of a strange metaphor for us [laughs].

I think it’ll be as much a realization of where we already are than something where we get to a point and, yeah, we are there.

Jim: We’ve meandered a bit from the original question here. So if we had to name a timeline, I would say I’m going to stick with 15 years.

Owen: Okay, I’m going to go Price Is Right style and just take the under on that one.

Jim: [laughs] 14 years?

Owen: Aggressively optimistic there. On the Price Is Right, you say one year and then you get all the years below that, the below years. This is a very dated reference, I’m realizing. I don’t know think that show is even on the air anymore. Haven’t watched TV in a while. Okay, related question, also the final question, “how do we get there?” So, Jim, how do we get there?

Jim: Well, this is asked by StepUpBG on Twitter, and we covered a little bit of this in the last question. I truly believe that the right approach to move towards basic income is to say that right now, we are laying groundwork. We are doing the things that make basic income more familiar, more understood and so that once we get that moment, we can say, “Alright, we got this. We know what this is. We’re ready to go. Let’s make this happen.”

Owen: I think you find, at least in America, that often the first time people hear of this policy — maybe less so, I’m getting this reaction less and less — but the most common first reaction is some amount of shock towards the idea of just giving people money unconditionally. I think people do need to sit with the idea for a little bit, and it needs to penetrate into more circles and become something that people are less afraid of talking about.

Jim: Right, I think part of that is just talking to more people about basic income and what it might do, having it be a more familiar concept that people they know and trust actually think this could be a really good solution and I think part of that is looking at what are the stepping stone policies that, in practice, can actually show people more what this is about. I think what to makes sense to go back to here is looking at the Alaska model and how the fact that everyone there is getting an unconditional payment every year is actually something that makes this whole thing make more sense to people a lot of the time.

Owen: Yes, and along that, I’m very excited about the trials in Ontario that just started and the upcoming one’s run by Y Combinator because those will be real trials, real stories, real people who are benefiting, so then it’ll be that much less abstract and that much closer.

Jim: I think those stories are going to be important and then what I would really like to see is for some city or state in the US to enact some small universal dividend in the same style as the Alaska model because I think that it’s that combination of hearing the stories of people who are getting full basic income and then yourself receiving this smaller additional income. Suddenly the intellectual leap between everyone getting basic income is much, much less than it is today.

Owen: I’m of the mind that $100 a month, even though we usually talk in terms of around 1,000, something like a 100 could be transformative for a lot of people and, if not transformative, would make a big difference. You would feel it.

Jim: If you’re scraping by, 100 a month is a game changer.

Owen: Yes, and speaking from my own experience, I wouldn’t say I’m scraping by, but I’d love $100 a month. [laughs] That wouldn’t be nothing.

So, how do we get there? I think a lot of what we’re already doing, and hopefully more trials, more support, more talking about it, more and more podcast episodes.

Jim: I think this is one where all y’all listeners can actually play a big role here. Again, make sure you are talking to people about this, looking for ways that you can push the idea forward. That’s actually what’s going to help make this happen.

Owen: So thank you to everyone who sent in questions. Please keep those coming, you can send them to myself @owenpoindexter at Twitter or Jim, you’re @dr_pugh there.

Jim: Or just tweet out the Universal Income Project, @UIProj on Twitter. We’ll get them there too.

Owen: Or you can find the Universal Income Project on Facebook as well.

Thank you so much for listening to the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. Again, please tell your friends, talk about basic income, talk about the podcast. This could be a good conversation starter for them. Subscribe if you have not already on Apple Podcast or the service of your choice. And while you’re there, please do leave us a rating or review. It’ll help more people find the podcast. See you next week.

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