It sounds more like a pipe dream than government policy. It’s called Universal Basic Income, a proposed government program that would essentially give every citizen a guaranteed floor income of say $1000 a month from Washington. It’s an idea that’s been around for a while and has more credibility than you might think—and not just from left-wingers. Richard Nixon and conservative uber-economist Milton Friedman were both proponents.
So too is Andy Stern, former president of the powerful Service Employees International Union and now a professor at Columbia University. In his new book ‘Raising the Floor,’ Stern lays out the case for UBI, and he suggests that it isn’t some pie-in-the-sky notion that would never see the light of day. I sat down with Stern to discuss.
“It is an old idea,” Stern points out. “Thomas Paine proposed it early on when we were forming the nation.”
As for why we need the program, Stern says that “at a time when our anti-poverty programs aren’t really working,” and with technology bringing massive job disruption, “we need to provide a safety net, a floor for every single American.”
UBI isn’t socialism, Stern says. Rather it’s a way to make sure every single American has stability in their life. Stern argues that middle class parents do this with their children, why shouldn’t our nation.
A big question: How in the world would the government pay for this? Stern says there are 126 government programs that pay out cash to citizens and acknowledges that some of them—not Social Security— could be “cashed out” and folded in to a Universal Basic Income program. He also notes though that UBI would require “some new income, some new revenue sources,” aka taxes. Some have suggested that UBI in the U.S. would cost $3 trillion a year.
Still Stern says he thinks the UBI is a realistic plan, pointing out that it’s “maybe the only major big idea in the 21st century that has support on both the left and the right.” I pointed that that Swiss voters just strongly rejected a UBI plan in that country, but Stern countered that in Swiss poll, 70% of those who voted in that referendum indicated that they expected to see UBI in Switzerland within the next 25 years.
Bottom line: UBI is an interesting idea and even better grist for debate.