Membership Should Have Its Privileges

Remember that commercial for American Express–the one that emphasized that “membership has its privileges”? Several European countries base their social programs on that theory–being a “member,” or citizen, should carry both benefits and responsibilities. (That belief is evidently why the GOP labels them “socialist.”)

In today’s America, radical Right-wingers are intent upon excluding disfavored minorities from the category of “member,” insisting that only White Christians can be “real Americans”–aka members.

That widespread belief that not everyone is a “member” is one of the central flaws of America’s social welfare system–the emphasis on presumed deservingness. You can see it in the dramatic differences in attitudes about means-tested welfare (negative) versus Social Security and Medicare (positive). When a benefit is universal, it doesn’t exacerbate tribal animosities. I’ve never heard anyone complain that “those people” are driving on roads paid for with my tax dollars!

One of the great virtues of a Universal Basic Income is that it would be universal. Everyone would benefit. Not only would it eliminate the costs of America’s enormous welfare bureaucracy and the manifest inequities and humiliations of the present programs, it would avoid the stereotyping of recipients that characterizes such programs.

Non-profit organizations and foundations are beginning to recognize the structural benefits of what they are calling “targeted universalism.” Nonprofit Quarterly –a highly respected academic journal–has launched a series exploring the concept, which was defined in one article as the recognition that our lives are “lived in a web of opportunity. Only if we address all of the mutually reinforcing constraints on opportunity can we expect real progress.”

While “targeted universalism” is not a call for a UBI, it is a call to approach social problems in a holistic way–to recognize the inter-connectedness of adequate housing, nutrition, transportation, and good schools. Addressing these interrelated issues requires income sufficient for basic subsistence–and some fascinating recent research points to  previously unrecognized benefits of ensuring that subsistence.

Several media outlets have reported on a study showing the effects of a basic income stipend on the development of infants’ cognitive faculties. The following quote is from Forbes (hardly a left-wing publication):

Giving mothers an unconditional cash gift of $333 each month may result in their children displaying increased brain activity, according to a study of 1,000 low-income mother-infant groups published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, reinforcing previous research linking childhood poverty to differences in brain structure and function.

A few cities and states are currently running–or have recently concluded– pilot programs on UBIs and, despite Republican warnings that the funds would subsidize sloth, drug and alcohol use, research has found that the money has gone primarily to food, housing and education.

There are certainly principled arguments and concerns about how a UBI might be structured and funded, but it seems beyond argument that–in addition to its other shortcomings– our current social safety net is exacerbating, rather than ameliorating, civic discord.

What would happen if the United States embraced a new social contract, beginning with the premise that all citizens are valued members of the American polity, and that such membership has its privileges?

Contracts–including social contracts– are by definition mutual undertakings, agreements in which both sides offer consideration. In my imagined “Brave New World,” government would create an environment within which humans could flourish, an environment within which members of the polity would be guaranteed a basic livelihood, access to health care, a substantive education and an equal place at the civic table. In return, members (aka citizens) would pay their “dues:” higher taxes (especially on the obscenely rich), a stint of public/civic service, and the consistent discharge of civic duties like voting and jury service.

In the Brave New World of my imagining, government would provide both physical and a social infrastructure.

Americans are familiar with the elements of the physical infrastructure: streets, roads, bridges, utilities, parks, museums, public transportation, and the like; we might expand the definition to include common government services like police and fire protection, garbage collection and similar necessities and amenities of community life.

The most consequential elements of my imagined social infrastructure– and by far the most difficult to implement–would be national health care and a UBI. Both would require significant changes to some of the deep-seated cultural assumptions on which the current economy rests.

As the libertarian Niskanen Center has shown, if a UBI could be implemented, it would ease economic insecurities, reduce the gap between rich and poor, restore workers’ bargaining power and (not so incidentally) rescue market capitalism from its descent into corporatism and plutocracy.

Membership would have its privileges.

A girl can dream….


  1. I agree whole-heartedly about the web of inter-dependence that we live in. That interdependence includes people of all types and beliefs, and extends to our natural environment.
    Good article! Thanks!

  2. The interconnectedness goes well beyond our boundaries of state and national lines. The constructs we have in place are all so broken and operated by inept and corrupt people, I’m not sure how we make improvements.

    The old media is invested in these corrupt constructs, which is our major source of communication. Even our own egos are invested in the old constructs and institutions – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    I can’t even convene a press conference to address corruption within our judicial branch. Neither the politicians nor the media want to attend and neither do the people. “You’re attacking our political bodies!”

    We’re dealing with the same cognitive reasoning, fear, and denial that just cleared grocery shelves because of 8 inches of snow.

  3. Nothing will change in the states until the population realizes that the US is Not the best country in the world. Honestly, there is no paradise. There are many ways that the US could adopt these new world ideas but their stubbornness is too much to make any concessions. The snowflakes who don’t and won’t read a dang book will be the loudest against it. The republic is doomed until you can shutdown those loud snowflakes and show them the improvements that can come if only they weren’t so stubborn. Like you, I’m a dreamer.

  4. Oh Sheila, This could be your best yet.

    You obviously are quite the visionary. It also shows that you have an active empathetic conscience, a conscience That is unscarred and completely equipped for good works.

    White Christians kind of forget About the responsibilities that were imbued by Christ. responsibilities that were learned and taught right out of the Mosaic Law.

    If one were to read Acts 17:26, you would see What would be a core belief, Not just in Christian scripture and dogma but also in Jewish dogma. Basically, that we are all the same, we are all brothers and sisters on this planet. No one is greater than the other.

    Acts 10:34, 35 Talks about every person is acceptable to God.

    Matthew 23:1-8 says, that we are all brothers and sisters, that men and women should be blended into one. John 17: 20 – 23 and 1 Corinthians 1:10.

    in Revelation 7:9 it reads that people of all nation tribes and people’s and tongues are welcome If they are demonstrating genuine love for their fellow man.

    Philippians 2:3 states, not to do anything out of contentiousness or egotism But with humility and one must also consider others superior to you. So, If others are superior to you, one would actually show others much more respect. Even though they might not truly be superior, the idea of that sort of conduct shows a great deal of humility and love for your fellow man.

    Unfortunately, We tend to fall back to injurious reasonings that Stoke prejudice , Read Mark 7:21.

    The Apostle Paul said, “When I wish to do what is right what is bad is present with me.” Read Romans 7:21.

    2nd Peter 3:13 Talks about human society which “righteousness is to dwell.”

    Romans 2:11 reads, “for there is no partiality with God.”

    In Deuteronomy 1:16,17 It discusses judging with righteousness between a man and his brother or a foreign resident.

    In Exodus 22:21, It reads, not to oppress the foreign residents Because everyone was a foreign resident at one time.

    Leviticus 19:34 Talks about a foreigner that resides with you should be treated as a native among you and love him as yourself .

    Leviticus 24:22 Talks about one judicial law and it applies to everyone the native or the foreign resident.

    Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants were all referred to as alien residents at one time Genesis 15:13 Genesis 17: 8 and Deuteronomy 23:7.

    An example of this, Ruth The daughter-in-law of Naomi gained permission to glean the fields a Boaz during the barley harvest. Ruth was a Moabite, She used The Israelite Law to sustain herself and her mother-in-law. Eventually being an heirist to Christ. Read the book of Ruth, as it is a short book.

    All laws Both Mosaic and Christs laws, Old Testament and New Testament laws, All point to everyone being given an opportunity and being treated equally under the law.

    The provisions for the poor and foreign residents to Harvest the grain According to their needs even if they didn’t plant that grain. They were entitled to a share through the law. They were entitled to sustenance and care. They were entitled to live without harassment, they were entitled to shelter.

    The Psalmist King David, wrote in Psalm 119:97 ; “how I do love your law, all day long it is my concern.”

    The law gave King David peace and also a good conscience, read Psalm The 119th chapter, It’s very enlightening.

    Now, Christians are not bound by the mosaic law, but, in the New Testament in the Christian Greek scriptures, the Mosaic law is quoted constantly on its justice and opportunity. As a matter of fact, Christ was referring to this when he said the whole law hangs on loving God and loving your neighbor. And “your neighbor” was referring to your fellow man. So if you love your neighbor you’re not going to treat your neighbor poorly, because you are loving your neighbor as yourself.

    Also Christ referred to loving your enemy, And that’s a major tenant in both The old and new testament.

    The reason I bring this up, is because Jews and Christians, Jews and Gentiles, The Abrahamist or Islamists or Muslims whichever you prefer, all believe in these very same tenants.

    The outline in that regard has always been there for a better society. Unfortunately so many have decided that scriptural or biblical counsel and ideals have no value in today’s world. If all of these tenants and dogma were followed, You would not have a world like we are in right now. Unfortunately, I doubt if that will change much. many of man’s laws , laws of the nations and such, borrow heavily from the scriptural law. So it’s not a stretch to believe things could be much better If People had more belief, more faith, more empathy, and more love!

    religion has been contaminated by politics. It’s been contaminated by men using it as a political sledgehammer to subjugate and segregate. But if you truly are a student of scripture or history for that matter, you realize that religion especially biblical council Solves most of man’s problems but It has such a bad reputation because of men manipulating it towards their own benefit and against that of their brother.

    Good men such as Martin Luther King, or Tisdale, Gave their lives so many could read The truth for themselves. Were their lives in vain, This is just two men, throughout history there have been hundreds or thousands. all murdered by those who had an agenda of subjugation and segregation.

    Historically all good men have flaws, But they willingly gave their life fighting against Injustice and fighting for freedom. Knowledge is power, knowledge Definitely translates into wisdom eventually. along with experience, along with empathy, along with compassion, along with love, men can accomplish anything, unfortunately, That’s not the reality we live in.

  5. I think I saw Rousseau smiling! The question is, how do you implement policies that make sense in the face of the adrenaline rush that hate is giving us? I really wish I had an answer.

  6. The plutocrats/corporate welfare queens have no intention of giving up their ill-gotten money and power. They believe entitlements are only for corporations and business owners.

  7. Let’s add one year of compulsory service for every citizen when they turn 18 or graduate from high school. It could be military, service in another country or working with a local non profit in this country. It would change the dynamics of our population in a positive way.

  8. I think part of the problem is that there is also an increasing view of “success” (however one defines success) as a zero-sum game. Anything that helps anyone else, helps them take away something that might help you.

    Plus, there are increasingly narrow and rigid ideas about what is *necessary* to achieve that success — I’ve lost count of the number of parents who are absolutely certain not just that college education (easily and widely available) is necessary for success in life, but that education at a very tiny set of elite universities is necessary — going to any “lesser” school is just setting a person up for “failure.” And elite college admission *is* something of a zero-sum game, because there are only so many beds in the dorms of those specific schools.

    So if we give a universal basic income, then poor people will have a greater possibility of being successful enough to not live in wage slavery and for their children to successfully compete for those limited slots at Harvard, etc.

    Now, if people actually considered themselves members of a community larger than their own household, they’d also appreciate that having broader opportunities would create a rising tide that would lift all boats. But otherwise, the motive is to come up with some excuse to “prove” why “those people” aren’t “deserving.” Grrr…

  9. Well done! Aimee, you’ll be happy to know that several Congressional Democrats have introduced a bill that would ban “legacy admissions” to all US universities that receive federal grants (It will likely go nowhere). The one thing that wealthy Americans abhor more than anything is meritocracy.

  10. I am reading a book called The Perishing, and the main character is black in 1930’s LA, and she has conversation with a white student. The white student is trying to tell her “how can I get ahead if someone else gets ahead? There’s only so much success to go around”. Part of this embodies the ingrained American ideal of rugged individualism, but mostly is displays the ignorance of the science of economics, where we all do better, if we ALL do better.

    It is so much easier to sell the ignorance.

  11. Aimee, Patrick, and Dan,


    So thoughtful and well said! Nice off the cuff collaboration also.

  12. Every socioeconomic understanding is subject to change as the conditions to which it is to be applied change, so much of John Locke’s social contract is subject to a new understanding now what with millions in poverty while the Dutch remove a barrier from a bridge to allow Bezos to sail his giant yacht beyond Rotterdam to the North Sea, among many other visible atrocities of unbridled capitalism, a visibility thanks not to the corporate press but the internet.

    The rich and corporate class, who favor means testing for the “undeserving,” should themselves be means tested under such a post-Locke contract, and the mere availability of large amounts of capital should not be one of the items on such “test,” a test designed rather to determine their worth in quest of the common good as regulated entities, a goal which may well include adoption of UBI, single payer, the end of poverty and other measures designed to assure the polity that means testing is in our wake and that they are entitled to such “privileges” because they are citizens and without such former qualifications that they be white, church-going, Republican, teetotalers etc.

    We are the richest country in the world; the problem is in the distribution of such wealth. So, socialism? We already have gobs of socialism in an admixture with capitalism as one of our socioeconomic conditions; the catch is that it is the capitalists who are in charge of determining how much of the mix they will allow in order to keep the proles at work and not in the streets in fattening their bottom lines.

    Sheila’s “Brave New World” can and I hope will succeed under the aegis of a new post-Locke socioeconomic understanding that includes sharing such bounty with every American, whatever the “ism” hysterical politicians will decry with their cries of socialism in support of their campaign benefectors. My test is whatever works, whatever the “ism,” and as Piketty, Krugman and other economists have noted in great detail, the present system of wage and wealth inequality isn’t working – and I here reiterate what I have written many times in other contexts: “I have no objection to people getting rich, so long as they take the rest of us along for the ride.”

  13. UBI certainly sounds like a promising idea, though I’d recommend being wary of someone like Andrew Yang – who has made UBI his identity. He seems like a Trojan horse a bit. in interviews I’ve seen he recommends UBI as the replacement for most other government services. IE – why do you need section 8 or SNAP or anything else if you have a UBI? Provide UBI and remove everything else.

    This theory is, of course, a bit ridiculous considering you can’t really remove 30k in benefits while replacing only 10k in assistance. UBI sounds like a good idea, but like everything else the devil is in the details.

  14. You don’t have to travel to too many countries around the world to see what things are like when the poor are poorer than here and the wealthy are wealthier. In other words, if Republicans and never ending wealth redistribution up prevail here.

    I for one don’t like what I have seen in some other countries. For one thing, property crimes increase as more people are forced to live closer to survival level existence. Population grows faster as more and more find it necessary to provide for their own old age by having more children when they can. Disease is much harder to control. Education declines as more children find it necessary to work before they can get much of it.

    What’s interesting is that many Republicans hope that by supporting their party they will somehow be better off living lives that suffer from not equipping themselves to live in today’s economy; in urban areas, with intensive lifelong learning, using public transportation, where the marketplace for the stuff of life is up to date. Why? They are comfortable with minimum change in their lives in an era when change is rampant and unavoidable.

    It’s become more apparent that Democrats are equipped policy wise with what keeps the country current with the rest of the world.

  15. Excellent Sheila. The problem is that the solution is a spiritual one. Peoples’ hearts have to change. And only God can do that. We need a revival. Will God in his grace foster it? I don’t know. He may just decide to give us all what our leaders have chosen. If that is so, expect more of the same.

  16. Another plaint in re Bezos having his super yacht built in Holland – he could at least have had it built by workers here in this country, workers who would have paid taxes on their incomes from such efforts, unlike Bezos and his fellow zillionaires who, occasionally, pay taxes into the pot that pays the nation’s bills. GRRRRR!

  17. Gerald–and Bezos needs to have the country tear down a bridge that the Netherlands rebuilt after the Nazi’s destroyed it during WWII and the country is considering dismantling it for this zillionaire. I guess it is on pause only after a public outcry.

    Maybe these religious folks need to actually start following Jesus and his teaching but they have bought into the Evangelical Prosperity Principle. They are greedy w/ their money, greedy with their grace, greedy w/ their empathy. My mom who is a PK (preachers kid) mentioned we need more religion and I said ‘no’ we do not. America with its freedom to practice any religion we want (well, in theory really any white protestant religion, anything else and you are going to hell or a heathen) but we have plenty of religion just not really generous of heart.

    I saw a friend post on FB ” Only in Texas is a 12 year old not mature enough to read a book, but mature enough to have a child….” there is religious doctrine all over this statement.

  18. Classic mistake. The workers in Belgium are people, too.
    Narrow we-first nationalism.
    And Bezos is funding both the removal AND refurbishing of the bridge.

  19. I am glad to hear he is paying for it. I don’t care who built it, but it still leaves a foul taste in mouth.

  20. @Patrick Wilshire, the problem, of course, is that not only would the wealthy elites fight like hell to prevent any such bill banning legacy admissions being passed (because it would make the zero-sum game more difficult for their own children), and it’s not clear whether it could possibly be constitutional (private universities are private institutions, so the bar would be extremely high), but it would also be completely impossible to monitor or enforce compliance.

    My own alma mater (MIT) does, in fact, not permit legacy admissions (or any other preferences for children of major donors, or anything else). Very explicitly and very proudly. When our daughter was applying to college, my husband and I, both alumni and active volunteers, the sole benefit we received was a friendly note saying approximately, “How lovely it is that your daughter has applied to MIT! Of course, as you know, we do not give any legacy preferences, and the ratio between applicants and spaces is much more awful than it was when you were younger, so please understand that no matter how terrific your kid is, she probably isn’t going to get in, thanks so much!” Because of our volunteer position, on the day early-action decisions were released, we found out a few hours before our daughter did that she had been deferred to regular action. That was it. On regular-decision day, we heard nothing. (She was, in fact, admitted in regular action, attended, loved it, and is now in graduate school.) We have heard directly from the head of admissions that children of professors, major donors, etc, same deal — no preferences, no way, no how, just a bit more hand-holding for the parents to soften the blow when that is needed.

    And what’s very unusual at MIT is that the student, and the alumni, and even the alumni who are parents of kids who are applying *agree* — there should not be legacy preferences! The work and the workload at MIT are both *extremely* difficult, and there is also no grade inflation (I explain to parents of first-year students that “yeah, your kid is going to call you in a panic in a few weeks, freaking out that class average on the midterm exam was 40%. That’s normal.”) So we learn to get away from always expecting to be the best in the room and towards loving the need for collaboration. At 2am, when you’re banging your head against three different impossible problem sets, you don’t want your neighbor to be some under-qualified legacy kid who has no helpful ideas. And you yourself wouldn’t want to *be* that kid, the one everyone knows only got in because of who their parents were. It would make every failure a soul-crushing experience, and you’ll experience a *lot* of failures while you’re at MIT.

    There’s a *pride* in the trade-school origins of the Institute, and in the fact that typically 18-20% of the first-year students are also the first member of their family to attend college *at all.*

    However, it is also empirically true that children of MIT alumni do get in to MIT somewhat more often than random chance would predict. That’s not because the admissions folks secretly do say, “oh, all things being equal, let’s take the legacy kid.” They don’t. It’s because the children of MIT alumni are far more likely to actually be smart enough (sorry, genetics is a real thing), and to have grown up in an environment where they were supported in the kinds of attitudes and activities that would make them actually really good matches for MIT. As a long-time volunteer interviewer, I can say that the families who don’t have a lot of connection with the MIT culture tend to have massive misconceptions about what MIT is actually like and what would be valued in the admissions process. Which is silly, because MIT is very open about it. Sigh.

    But that illustrates how even in an environment where no one *wants* legacy status to have any effect, it would not be possible to prove that there were no preferences. So in an environment where people *would* want to secretly preserve the old-guard system, it would be completely unrealistic to believe that it wouldn’t just keep happening with a nod and a wink.

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