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Why Universal Basic Income Is a Bad Idea

One should always be wary of simple solutions to complex problems, and universal basic income is no exception. The fact that this answer to automation and globalization has been met with such enthusiasm indicates a breakdown not in the economic system, but in democratic politics and civic life.

BOSTON – Owing to the inadequacy of the social safety net in the United States and other developed countries, proposals for a universal basic income (UBI) are gaining in popularity. The gap between the rich and everyone else has expanded significantly in recent years, and many fear that automation and globalization will widen it further.

To be sure, if the only choice is between mass impoverishment and a UBI, a UBI is preferable. Such a program would allow people to spend their money on whatever they value most. It would create a broad sense of ownership and a new constituency to shake up the system of big-money politics. Studies of conditional cash-transfer programs in developing economies have found that such policies can empower women and other marginalized groups.

But UBI is a flawed idea, not least because it would be prohibitively expensive unless accompanied by deep cuts to the rest of the safety net. In the US (population: 327 million), a UBI of just $1,000 per month would cost around $4 trillion per year, which is close to the entire federal budget in 2018. Without major cost savings, US federal tax revenue would have to be doubled, which would impose massive distortionary costs on the economy. And, no, a permanent UBI could not be financed with government debt or newly printed currency.

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