November 12, 2013


Switzerland's Proposal to Pay People for Being Alive (ANNIE LOWREY, 11/17/13, NY Times Magazine)

This fall, a truck dumped eight million coins outside the Parliament building in Bern, one for every Swiss citizen. It was a publicity stunt for advocates of an audacious social policy that just might become reality in the tiny, rich country. Along with the coins, activists delivered 125,000 signatures -- enough to trigger a Swiss public referendum, this time on providing a monthly income to every citizen, no strings attached. Every month, every Swiss person would receive a check from the government, no matter how rich or poor, how hardworking or lazy, how old or young. Poverty would disappear. Economists, needless to say, are sharply divided on what would reappear in its place -- and whether such a basic-income scheme might have some appeal for other, less socialist countries too. [...]

 They even are whispered about in the United States, where certain wonks on the libertarian right and liberal left have come to a strange convergence around the idea -- some prefer an unconditional "basic" income that would go out to everyone, no strings attached; others a means-tested "minimum" income to supplement the earnings of the poor up to a given level.

The case from the right is one of expediency and efficacy. Let's say that Congress decided to provide a basic income through the tax code or by expanding the Social Security program. Such a system might work better and be fairer than the current patchwork of programs, including welfare, food stamps and housing vouchers. A single father with two jobs and two children would no longer have to worry about the hassle of visiting a bunch of offices to receive benefits. And giving him a single lump sum might help him use his federal dollars better. Housing vouchers have to be spent on housing, food stamps on food. Those dollars would be more valuable -- both to the recipient and the economy at large -- if they were fungible.

Even better, conservatives think, such a program could significantly reduce the size of our federal bureaucracy. It could take the place of welfare, food stamps, housing vouchers and hundreds of other programs, all at once: Hello, basic income; goodbye, H.U.D. Charles Murray of the conservative American Enterprise Institute has proposed a minimum income for just that reason -- feed the poor, and starve the beast. "Give the money to the people," Murray wrote in his book "In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State." He suggested guaranteeing $10,000 a year to anyone meeting the following conditions: be American, be over 21, stay out of jail and -- as he once quipped -- "have a pulse."

One hardly need worry about disincentives to work when there's less and less work to be done.

Posted by at November 12, 2013 2:30 PM

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