Your Mayor’s Worst Idea Yet?

Pop quiz: Who said this? “Everyone deserves an income floor through a guaranteed income.” 

Hint: It wasn’t Marx, Stalin, or Engels. It was the mayors of 62 American cities from Providence to Tacoma. They are all proud signatories to a group called Mayors for a Guaranteed Income.

Until a few years ago, universal basic income, or UBI, was a concept about which most Americans remained blissfully ignorant. It wasn’t until presidential candidate Andrew Yang announced his plan for a UBI of $1,000 direct payments to citizens that talk of a UBI became commonplace. Called “the Freedom Dividend,” Yang’s plan would have paid every American adult $12,000 a year, regardless of his or her employment status or income.

This idea was not widely accepted by voters. In the New Hampshire primaries, Yang finished eighth with 2.8 percent of the vote. In the Iowa Caucuses, he finished 10th, with only one percent.

So why, now, are so many mayors backing this idea? Their website cites all the predictable progressive reasons.

Economic insecurity isn’t a new challenge or a partisan issue. Wealth and income inequality, which have long plagued our country, continue to grow. Rooted in Dr. King’s legacy, mayors across the country are coming together to advocate for a guaranteed income—direct, recurring cash payments—that lifts all of our communities, building a resilient, just America. Everyone deserves an income floor through a guaranteed income.

Despite the lofty language of five-dozen mayors, most of these programs so far are fairly limited. The most generous, and expensive, are in Los Angeles and Chicago. One L.A. program pays $1,204 a month for three straight years, but only to 150 people. A more widespread L.A. program pays nearly 3,000 people $1,000 a month, but only for one year. Chicago wins the prize for creating the most dependents (5,000), but will only pay $500 a month, starting some time this year. The smallest pilot group is in Lynn, Massachusetts, where the Family Health Project is paying 15 new moms $400 every month for their toddlers’ first three years. 

Obviously, Chicago has more than 5,000 people who could use a few extra dollars, and Lynn, Massachusetts likely has more than 15 single moms. So, unless voters wake up and defund these UBI pilot programs, they are bound to experience significant entitlement creep.

Like most progressive fantasies, UBI raises a number of practical questions: Who pays for this? How much and for how long? Why is this a municipal program instead of a state or federal one?

The ethical questions are even more troubling: How severely will a guaranteed income erode what used to be a strong national work ethic? If UBI can only be given to a fraction of the population, what bureaucrat or committee decides winners and losers? And what new possibilities for corruption does that throw wide open?

Behind the growing momentum for UBI questions, there is a reality that affects some Americans today, and will affect millions tomorrow. Robotic automation has already made countless blue collar jobs obsolete, and now AI is having the same effect on traditional white collar jobs.

Few noticed, but Yang spelled the problem out clearly in his 2020 campaign platform :

Technology is quickly displacing a large number of workers, and the pace will only increase as automation and other forms of artificial intelligence become more advanced. One-third of American workers will lose their jobs to automation by 2030 according to McKinsey. This has the potential to destabilize our economy and society if unaddressed . . .

It is necessary to support and preserve a robust consumer economy . . .

Prevent the massive disruption that will accompany the rapid development and adoption of automation and other AI technologies.

This sounds like the material of dystopian science fiction, but it could become an inevitable economic fact. For better or worse, we are moving to a world where machines make the products and provide the services we will consume. But without an income, we can’t afford to be consumers.

So to keep the vast infrastructure of artificial hands and brains working at full capacity, with UBI, we are essentially paid to become consumers of whatever the machines produce. 

As a voter, what can you do about it? UBI is one of those large government-spawned problems that has deep roots at the local level. To help you push back, here’s the Mayors for a Guaranteed Income website. Have a look and see if your mayor supports this bad idea.

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