Tag Archives: universalism

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….