Thursday, September 24, 2015

#BasicIncome: How much is Basic?

25Sep15 UPDATE: Paragraph 20 revised
26Sep15 UPDATE: 125 reads, 6 upvotes on reddit. Maybe not all reads are redditors, but still a nice measure of general disdain for real numbers, indexed to real economy, versus popularity of other posts.

The current consensus answer to the question, "How much unconditional basic income is enough?" has been carefully groomed over the past couple of years; not derived by collective intellectual honesty or peer-verified empirical rigor, but imposed by pure repetition, Fox News style. While a small minorty attempt to inject livable basic income into the discussion, the adjective goes largely ignored in the generally most active community, /r/BasicIncome.

There is nothing of substance to support vague round numbers, arbitrarily tossed out by Charles Murray for discussion's sake, as he put it, and then more or less seconded by Peter Barnes. The figure of $1,000/mo was pulled out of thin air and has been increasingly filled with copious amounts of hot air, like a balloon expanding to the point that it currently blocks a clear view of the horizon.

Relax ... it's just a little pin prick.

We started a conversation about iterating capitalism with a guaranteed annual income, and have discovered that not all conversations are created equal. Casual street level conversation is generally limited to existing, known quantities. It's purpose isn't to delve too deeply, it's just to pass the time. Policy conversation is not like that at all. Policy conversation can't afford to go with lowest common denominator, or accept quick and loose fitting analogies; not if it intends to materially influence the direction of a society for the long term.

Conducting this experiment on social media has been interesting. We've observed how quick-n-random numbers, typical of casual conversation, based on nothing but handy references to commonly understood ballpark figures, have somehow gained sufficient, utterly unfounded, self-confidence to present themselves as viable public policy decision making data. The folks at BasicIncomeAction have actually put these numbers -- "maybe $1,000  a month, or $800 or $1,500 a month" -- into their proposed legislative platform. Out of thin air. Derived from nothing. Moreover, the full range of proposals that span from $500 to $3,200 a month, is abruptly cut in half.

If public policy actually gets made based upon such lackadaisical processes and haphazard figures, it could indeed mark the full triumph of idiocracy in dumbing down the entire global brain, with very real and dire consequences for human well being.

What's occurred since we began this blog appears like a kind of collective Dunning Kruger effect. The $1,000 #BasicIncome proposal might go down in journal history as one of the first readily identifiable cases of this phenomenon, en masse. Like McArthur Wheeler, believing that if we rub lemon juice all over $1,000, in the form of our own convenient "opportunity multiples," which conveniently fill the gaps of our forgone conclusion, then poverty can magically be equated with sufficiency.

While our little experiment has been highly effective in engaging public discourse and raising public awareness of a previously mothballed policy that is needed now more than ever, it has been disasterous in terms of reaching anything resembling a rigorous, data-driven policy recommendation. So, insert all of the classical arguments against democracy as tyranny-of-the-dumbest common denominator, here. We still don't fully agree with those criticisms, but certainly understand their foundations in a contemporary light.

In the case of determining the level of a livable basic income -- "at levels that sustain life in decent circumstances," in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. -- the federal poverty level quickly comes to most minds, because it is easy. Lazy. By definition, the poverty level is "a level of personal income defining the state of poverty" which therefore cannot equate, mathematically, to the current vague notion of "sufficient to cover basic needs" which the so-called leaders of the #BasicIncome community have decreed. Argue against this, however, and face the wrath of the bot mobs of /r/BasicIncome who insist that the phrases "sufficient to cover" and "defining of poverty" are somehow mathematically equivalent.

This is ipso facto idiotic, and thinking humans easily see through the false equivalence. That which defines poverty cannot simultaneously define sufficiency. Not in this dimension, on this planet, in 2015 CE.

However, we do regretably live in a world populated by mostly stressed out, poverty afflicted humans incapable of finding the luxury of time to engage in such reasoning. That leaves us, the privileged, to speak on behalf of those with no voice, from the perspective of those with no voice, rather than from the perspective of our own intellectual or material laurels. Speaking for others is always fraught with ambiguity and peril, but it's also the foundation of any representative form of governance, so it's not exactly uncommon. Every day in congress, people are speaking for and acting on behalf of you and me.

So the question becomes, how can we mitigate the negative effects of presumption in such cases? How can we work through public policy issues with authentic credibility and enlightened empathy? One of the best ways is to live at that same low standard. Live and breath the situation for which you purport to propose solutions. So that's what we've done. That's why we consider our relatively few voices of greater value and validity than the multitude of voices repeating a number pulled out of thin air and filled with hot air.

When we talk about the phrase Livable Basic Income, we are talking about amounts that Martin Luther King Jr defined as, "levels that sustain life in decent circumstances." Yes, that's a vague concept that we must substantiate, if we are to forge sound policy, and that has been the thrust of the work all along.

The federal poverty level most certainly does not coincide with MLK's standard of "life in decent circumstances." The poverty level is not fit for any purpose other than a deplorably low reference point that marks utter destitution. Apparently, pedantics are justified here, because people continue to make emphatic false equivalence arguments. A poverty level is a point at which nobody can reasonably argue against the statement, "this has gone much too far, this essentially constitutes economic violence."
A poverty level cannot equate to a sufficiency level. Yet, this is precisely what the $1K basic income bot drone air brigade uses to carpet spam social media. According to the $1K argument, Poverty is Sufficiency. Straight out of Orwell.
The best purpose a poverty level could serve in the algebra of calculating a livable, unconditional basic income is as a multiplier. As a multiplier, one might reasonably argue that 2.5 times federal poverty level, or 2.75, or 3 times constitutes humane "levels that sustain life in decent circumstances."

That any of this needs be explained at all, to people who claim to be well intentioned basic income advocates, is utterly disheartening and illuminates the contorted motives of the millions who obviously want a basic income at levels that will only further impoverish our society, rather than strengthen it. There is now a large cadre of very vocal, austerity-obsessed, libertarian types who have virtually taken over the basic income reddit community, in the name of instituting basic income as a purely cost saving, rather than life saving and preserving measure.

Their objective is to eliminate all the existing support programs in our society and replace them with a cash benefit that is lower than what's already being spent. What they miss is the fact that -- at truly livable levels -- overall costs to society will in fact decrease, astronomically. Many of those costs are hidden, off-balance-sheet, in the form of well documented mental and physical ravages of poverty. New data in recent decades has made these costs impossible to refute, if still difficult to economically quantify with precision.

The bottom line for the libertarian austerity cost-cutters who seem to have commandeered the megaphone on #BasicIncome, is that their approach effectively undermines the intentions of every historical call for unconditional basic income; namely, robust social sustainability through material economic justice. To their credit, it is a brilliant bit of psyops to have pulled this off, to date. To embrace an idea antithetical to their Ayn Rand utopia and forge it into a safety-net shredding machete.

Others seem to not yet understand, or do not yet want to acknowledge, that basic income isn't merely a novel economic theory or philosophy, like debating how many angels can dance on the head of pin. While many would like to frame it that way, in order to discredit and dilute the public energy that has grown at an increasingly rapid pace in recent years, the truth of the matter is that a long term policy that provides for a population's income security in a post-automation economy, is absolutely essential to social and institutional stability.

Sustainable, proportionate, reliable, currency circulation protects against the imbalances of runaway industrial capitalism, which in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has once again become utterly unfettered, just as it was in the nineteenth century heyday of robber barons. Unfettered capitalism doesn't work any better than any other unfettered economic or political system. Large human institutions need fetters -- checks and balances -- to prevent them from naturally becoming behemoths, golems, our greatest inventions that then turn upon us with dire unintended consequences. Fettered capitalism, free market socialism, capitalism++, call the next iterative hybrid economic system whatever you will: a well and transparently regulated market economy can and will restore sanity and sustainability to the circulation of the fruits of a people's collective labor. A livable basic income, pegged to real collective productivity, is an undeniably legitimate citizen's dividend, and it is the economic ciruclatory system upgrade best adapted to conditions of a twenty first century post-automation civilization.

Below, we set forth a loose framework for thinking in more empirical terms about the question "how much basic income is enough?" Rather than using round numbers for the sake of discussion, rather than seeking to gut all existing social safety nets merely to save a buck, we set forth to define an empirical range of number that we can then set about fulfilling and funding by various means. Taxation and responsible cost-savings. Decommissioning far less effective, extremely costly, means-tested programs, etc.
In short, livable basic income, or citizen's dividend is a policy that is primarily about bolstering the economic resilience of a nation, by assuring the economic viablity of the individual, in a post-automation economy. 
A dividend that is pegged to real market productivity (GDP) can achieve the objective described by MLK "at levels that sustain life in decent circumstances." We will see below, objective measures of what those decent circumstances look like. Due to time constraints for the authors, fractional amounts pertaining to children are beyond the scope of this initial excercise. Certainly, any realistic basic income policy must not in any way diminish existing benefits for children. 

Current annual measures of poverty, productivity, and relative sufficiency, linked to their sources:
Using the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator, we can calculate for ourselves "the income a family needs in order to attain a secure yet modest standard of living in 618 areas across the country."

These are the variety and caliber of numbers that any responsible and intellectually honest Basic Income Act absolutely must take into account in the course of crafting legislation.

Martin Luther King Jr. used the phrase "life in decent circumstances." The Economic Policy Institute uses "secure yet modest standard of living." The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25 says, "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

These are the standards that responsible activists and policy makers absolutely must use in crafting the most important legislation of our generation.