Politics & Other Mistakes: Money for nothing

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I’m in favor of people giving me cash – particularly, if I don’t have to do anything in return. Like work.

It’s a sad commentary on these times that virtually all financial remuneration is available only after one agrees to onerous terms and conditions that require getting up much too early, not showing up drunk or stoned, and performing mind-numbing tasks that make listening to a Joe Biden campaign speech seem entertaining by comparison. Small wonder I’ve been forced to spend my career in journalism.

There is, however, some hope for those of us who’d prefer to squander our days in indolence. Maine has created a special committee to study a proposal to give everybody in the state free moolah.

I’m not making that up.

The concept is called universal basic income, and the idea is that if we all had more money, we’d, I dunno, pay off our bar tabs. This would strengthen the economy, which would create more jobs of the sort that I didn’t want in the first place.

Still, only a fool would pass up a monthly check that requires nothing more to qualify than existing.

The basic concept of UBI has been around since at least the 16th century, when it was discussed as a possible method of stopping poor people from stealing. In the 18th century, Thomas Paine advocated a form of it, as did John Stuart Mill. In more recent times, Canada and Finland have both run pilot projects that hand out free money from the public coffers, while a Stockton, California, experiment involving 125 families is being privately funded. Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has made UBI the centerpiece of his campaign and is testing the plan by paying for a small focus group to receive monthly cash
payments.

The only problem with UBI is finding a way to finance it. One estimate (by opponents, so grain of salt and all) claims giving every adult in the state an annual payment of $12,000 and every child $6,000 would cost $14 billion. Considering that the entire state budget for two years comes to a little over $8 billion, that added expense would appear to require a substantial tax increase or an unusually lucrative Ponzi scheme.

Candidate Yang claims the cost could be covered with a tax on digital advertising, a value-added tax on just about everything, and sending masked enforcers around to every dwelling to shake down the populace for extra dough. This sounds as if it would cost me at least as much as I’d receive, which considerably dampens my enthusiasm.

Some members of the Maine committee have suggested that welfare programs could be consolidated, so that instead of receiving food stamps, heating assistance, rental subsidies and Medicaid, poor people would get a UBI check. In that case, rich folks and sluggards such as myself wouldn’t qualify for anything, which hardly seems universal or of much benefit to my bar tab. The conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center is at least open to the idea of paying for this sort of handout by eliminating current welfare programs. In a posting on its Maine Wire website, it theorized that “a Maine-based UBI could be better than our current system, which has failed to eliminate poverty.”

But it also warned that it might encourage people like me to goof off even more, meaning, “the effects of a UBI program could actually worsen Maine’s current and projected workforce shortage.”

The liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy isn’t fond of using existing social-service funds to pay for UBI. The center’s policy analyst, Sarah Austin, told the Portland Press Herald, “Replacing that safety net with a new cash benefit could have unintended consequences for low-income families and our economy writ large.” Among those consequences might be a massive loss of federal matching funds.

The bottom line: Nobody knows if UBI will make society better or worse. All that can be stated definitively is that if it came to pass, the owners of bars I frequent would be greatly appreciative.

Universal basic irritations may be emailed to aldiamon@herniahill.net.