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 Sachs is is an American economist and co-founder and chief strategist of Millennium Promise Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending extreme poverty and hunger. He is also the former director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, where he holds the title of University Professor, the highest rank that Columbia bestows on its faculty.
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.
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Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.