Can Universal Basic Income Fix America’s Inequality?
Can't the U.S. be a little more like Scandinavia in its ethos? Fixing inequality in America will take more than economic reform, it will also need a cultural shift.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is the Director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is also Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. From 2002 to 2006, he was Director of the UN Millennium Project and Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals, the internationally agreed goals to reduce extreme poverty, disease, and hunger by the year 2015. Sachs is also President and Co-Founder of Millennium Promise Alliance, a nonprofit organization aimed at ending extreme global poverty.
He is widely considered to be the leading international economic advisor of his generation. For more than 20 years Professor Sachs has been in the forefront of the challenges of economic development, poverty alleviation, and enlightened globalization, promoting policies to help all parts of the world to benefit from expanding economic opportunities and wellbeing. He is also one of the leading voices for combining economic development with environmental sustainability, and as Director of the Earth Institute leads large-scale efforts to promote the mitigation of human-induced climate change.
In 2004 and 2005 he was named among the 100 most influential leaders in the world by Time Magazine. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan, a high civilian honor bestowed by the Indian Government, in 2007. Sachs lectures constantly around the world and was the 2007 BBC Reith Lecturer. He is author of hundreds of scholarly articles and many books, including the New York Times bestsellers Common Wealth (Penguin, 2008) and The End of Poverty (Penguin, 2005). Sachs is a member of the Institute of Medicine and is a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. Prior to joining Columbia, he spent over twenty years at Harvard University, most recently as Director of the Center for International Development. A native of Detroit, Michigan, Sachs received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard University.
Jeffrey Sachs: There’s a proposal around that’s got a lot of interest called universal basic income where everybody is guaranteed at least a certain level of income in the society. Some free market economists like Milton Friedman talked about a negative income tax which in effect had the same features of guaranteeing a certain level of income for everybody as a base.
I think from a human rights and decency standard there’s a lot of sense to the idea that everybody in a society should be able to meet their basic needs. There’s on the other hand this sense if you give someone a check whether they’re trying, not trying, working, not working. If there’s no effort, no conditionality involved at all maybe we’re going to get a lot of people that are absolutely doing nothing on the backs of those who are really working. So the incentive issues are real even if the sensitivity and decency issues are also real. I think that one way to handle this is a little bit more rounded rather than seeing a universal basic income as a check and kind of an unconditional check that’s just handed out as income.
I like the idea of social democracy as it’s applied in real countries in Europe, the Netherlands and Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany. The idea is everybody has access to publicly financed healthcare. Everybody has access to quality publicly financed education including college tuitions. Not a trillion dollars of crushing student debt, but tuitions paid for. Everybody has access to not only guaranteed vacation, but paid vacation. Everybody has access to quality childcare so that moms can go to work knowing that their kids are in a healthy, nurturing environment. Everybody has access to maternity leave so that moms and also paternity leave, dads can stay home with their kids for several months. It’s kind of decent where you say we have all this wonderful technology, this wealth. Why don’t we live decently, not miserably.
If people want a market income beyond that they’ve got to go work for it. If, of course, they’re disabled or for some reason can’t then there’s added social support but it’s not cash in people’s pockets. It’s decency. It’s public service. It’s basic needs met. I see it as basically living decent lives in decent societies. They have a very different spirit to them. There aren’t a lot of super rich Wall Street hedge fund misanthropes – and I’ll use the term advisably because I find a lot of people on Wall Street don’t give a damn about anybody else except they care about their money. And I find that really weird. But you don’t find that kind of idea in northern Europe because it’s really looked down upon. And people don’t like it when people are money grubbing. They’re kind of shunned. So the social ethos is different.
I remember once I was running to the airport in Oslo and I fly business class and I’m constantly moving around on trips relentlessly around the world. And I ran up and said, “Where’s the business class line to board?” And the guy looked at me like I was crazy and he said, “Excuse me, we’re boarding the Scandinavian way. Get back in line.” And I just thought okay, that’s pretty cool actually, you know. Everybody’s in line and let’s all get on the plane.
It’s a social spirit. It’s the idea that we like – well by the way this is not people tearing their clothes and living in hair shirts and not enjoying themselves. They like their vacations. They like their boats in the Stockholm archipelago. They like six weeks on their island. So they live beautifully. But they don’t want gazillions. They don’t want to do it at the expense of others. They want to do it as a society. God, if America could just get a little of that back rather than a president who believes in killers and losers. Sick, but that’s what we got and that is what’s degrading American society. Not just the technical issues. Not just the rising inequality but this spirit that you’re a winner or you’re a loser. And if you’re a loser get out of the way. That’s Ayn Rand talking. It’s ugly and we’ve had enough of it.
From a human rights and decency standard, everybody in a society should be able to meet their basic needs, says economist and Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs – but he questions whether a popular proposal known as Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the way to achieve a better standard of living in the U.S. At its simplest, UBI is an unconditional base salary that is paid to all citizens of a society, no matter their employment status, current wealth, attempts to gain work, and regardless of how they intent to spend it. Sachs sees the value in the idea, but isn’t confident in the proposal’s no-strings-attached nature – will some people coast for free off the hard work of others? A guaranteed basic income experiment known as ‘Mincome’ in Canada in the 1970s showed a just a 9% reduction in working hours among two main groups of citizens: new mothers, using their additional income to extend their maternity leaves and spend more time with their infants, and teenage boys who were using that income to stay in school. A new UBI trial is planned for 2017 in Ontario, and many nations await the results.
Sachs prefers a different strategy: social democracy, which requires a cultural reform in the U.S. alongside an economic reform. Sachs holds up the ethos of Northern European countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Germany who have publicly financed healthcare and education. Free and equal skills for all, over free and equal money. The more egalitarian spirit operating in these countries would clash dramatically with the Wall Street ‘winners and losers’ mentality that dominates American economics. "That is what’s degrading American society. Not just the technical issues. Not just the rising inequality but this spirit that you’re a winner or you’re a loser. And if you’re a loser get out of the way. That’s Ayn Rand talking. It’s ugly and we’ve had enough of it."
Jeffrey Sachs's most recent book is Building the New American Economy: Smart, Fair, and Sustainable.
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.
- Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
- As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
- Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.
Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.
These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.
How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe
(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.
Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.
One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.
The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.
Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"
This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.
Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.
Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.
What the future may hold
(NASA via Getty Images)
Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.
Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.
But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.
Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.
Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.
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