Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Everybody gets $7,000 a year

Jerry Stratton, March 30, 2006

Charles Murray, author of In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State, wants to simplify welfare by giving it to everyone: $7,000 a year, plus enough to purchase a health plan. The health plan expense will be required; he currently estimates it to be about $3,000, thus the slogan-like $10,000 a year.

One of the questions he’s asked is, what’s to keep people working? Won’t kids just decide to live off of their $7,000? He replies well, by saying that’s a great idea.

I think it would be a great boon to the maturity of our new college grads, and save many innocent people from going to law school, if more of them took a few years after college and did something besides heading straight to grad school or throwing themselves into their careers. I’m not worried about this particular form of work disincentive in the Plan. Playing gets old awfully fast. So does living on $10,000 a year.

However, I don’t think it’s the money that will encourage people to leave their jobs. It’s the health care. There is always a tendency to think that your own feelings are shared by a lot of people, so I don’t really know how many people share my attitude about working. But if I could quit my job and know that I still had health care and an extra $7,000 to boot, I’d leave my full-time job and start writing in my pajamas pretty quickly. Seven grand plus savings plus odd jobs here and there isn’t a bad trade-off for sleeping in most days and not answering to anyone. If I were to still have a health plan.

I pretty much never use my health care plan; I’ve been to the doctor once in the past five years or more. But the thought of losing it scares me. So I keep saving money, and I keep comparing what I’ve saved with what I’d need if I quit, and it’s always the health care that really stops me cold. Remove that fear, and I’d be much more likely to ask for fewer hours or even to outright quit my job.

Of course, if a lot of other people share that attitude we might see some serious changes in the standard work schedule and in the acceptance of flextime. Five days out of seven and a minimum of 40 hours out of 112 is a huge percentage of a person’s life. Yeah, it’s not as bad as the 1800s but it’s still a waste of life. A little friendly competition between working and not working might help workers negotiate better schedules and working conditions.

Changing society is part of what he wants his system to encourage: make it easier to change jobs, encourage marriage, and otherwise stop the “transfer of responsibilities” from the individual to the welfare state.

The simplicity of Murray’s system is another appeal: it replaces all other entitlements, including Social Security. It makes a lot of sense. One real problem is that eventually, and probably sooner rather than later, the system would become complicated as Congress tries to pass restriction after restriction on how the money is used. Also, nothing really stops Congress from adding entitlements on top of the simplified welfare. He solves the latter by expecting a constitutional amendment, but that’s pushing it, as he says later:

Is there anything in the book that I don’t believe myself? Asking that a constitutional amendment be written so that it cannot be reinterpreted by the courts comes close.

And the former... there isn’t really anything that can stop it. We already have byzantine rules on welfare; he hopes that the fact that everyone is getting this will make it politically impossible to change it, but the same is true of the income tax, and that’s hardly simple.

I haven’t read the book (although I’ve put it on my list), but in principal I’d love to see such a simplification as long as it afforded true choice in health care and didn’t become a means for pushing otherwise unconstitutional restrictions on lifestyles. I’m not going to start holding my breath until after we simplify taxes. Murray, while more optimistic, does recognize the problem:

If I were forced to write about politically practical reforms, I’d be face down on my keyboard, fast asleep.

Ironically, his system would probably put a whole bunch of people on welfare, so to speak: everyone who works for the welfare office. Most of them wouldn’t be needed if the only requirements for getting welfare were being 21 and not being in jail. And if the only thing the central computer needed to know is your bank account number and the health care provider you use. They’d probably need to keep the fraud division, although even that could be rolled into the IRS. Most welfare workers would really need that first $10,000 check!

June 10, 2016: A grumpy basic income

While the Swiss universal basic income referendum failed, it has brought the idea of a replacing welfare with a UBI back into the news. It sounds like the Swiss referendum was a very bad plan: it added the UBI on top of other forms of welfare.

It’s hardly a new idea. I first heard about it from an article on Charles Murray’s In Our Hands back in 2006.

Capitalizing on the Swiss referendum, Murray has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. John Cochrane has some interesting thoughts on what Murray says on his own Grumpy Economist blog.

It’s worth reading, because Cochrane goes into detail about what I identified as the biggest problem with the plan, that after time additional welfare will inevitably be added on top of the basic income. It’s a neat idea, but since the entire purpose is to replace all forms of welfare and government income assistance, simplifying government and dismantling the bureaucracy around the welfare state, that flaw is a big one.

In the real world, there’s simply no way around it. It’s a neat idea, but I can’t see how it could be safely implemented. Even a constitutional amendment, I now think, would fail to keep Washington from finding ways to rebuild the complexities of the welfare state. It’s the complexities of the welfare state as much as it is the welfare state itself, that feeds the bureaucratic event horizon. And the event horizon is pretty much the purpose of government bureaucracies. They’re not going to let it fade.

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