Universal Basic Income: Pipe Dream or Proactive Policy?

On November 6, 2017, businessman Andrew Yang began a presidential campaign centered on a signature policy, Universal Basic Income (UBI).1 If put in place, this UBI or “Freedom Dividend” would give every adult American $1,000 a month, no questions asked.2 The idea captured some voters’ imaginations; although Yang ultimately suspended his campaign after a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, UBI has never been more popular.3

What Is UBI?

UBI is a form of government assistance wherein every adult citizen is automatically entitled to regular payment from the government. In most proposed UBI systems, this money does not have to be spent on specific goods or services; it can be used by recipients for anything they deem necessary.4 Some UBI systems call for replacing basic income entirely, making full-time employment largely optional. Others favor a more modest approach, which would supplement rather than replace individual income.

How Would Yang’s Model Work?

The current median annual individual income in the United States is approximately $33,000; the poverty line stands at just under $13,000 per year.5 At $12,000 per year, Yang’s UBI would still fall below the poverty line and therefore would not replace the need for employment for most people. However, for an individual living in poverty, an additional $1,000 a month would essentially double their income. Yang also argues that entitling adults to $1,000 per month would mean that unpaid jobs, such as stay-at-home parenting and volunteering, would no longer necessitate the same sacrifice.6 Yang also suggests that UBI could be a means of enabling people to make more time in life for personal development and interests, as they would not have to focus so much on acquiring money.7

According to Yang’s policy briefs, his UBI policy would cost $2.8 trillion per year, which is roughly 70 percent of the federal government’s current annual budget.8 Yang’s policy proposal takes other factors into account, which he claims would bring the net cost down to $320.5 billion per year. His policy would raise additional revenue by imposing a new value-added tax (VAT, a type of tax on products that consumers buy).9 However, economic experts do not agree that the cost of the program could be offset sufficiently.10

Why Is Yang Advocating for UBI?

Yang has tied the need for UBI to the threat of automation in what he calls “The Fourth Industrial Revolution.”11 Unlike previous revolutionary changes owed to technology, Yang suggests that advancements in artificial intelligence will result in jobs being lost at a higher rate than they can be replaced. On his policy site, Yang argues that in the next 12 years, one in three Americans are at risk of not just losing their jobs but having their profession itself cease to exist.12 For example, Yang believes that driverless vehicles will render trucking jobs obsolete and leave truckers with a skill set and job history that is no longer relevant when they need to find new employment. UBI could be a way to offset the harm of job loss and provide individuals with a safety net as they find new jobs or learn new skills.

What Is the Criticism of UBI?

Beyond the high cost of implementing UBI, criticisms tend to center on the implications that such a system would have on the economy. Some have suggested that UBI would disincentivize hard work and undermine the American work ethic.13 Others point to studies which show that people receiving unemployment benefits devote more time to leisure than job-hunting.14 Participants in similar smaller-scale programs were shown to be less productive and less motivated to work.15 Finally, some economists argue that prices on everything from food to rent would increase, reflecting the extra money that people would have. Therefore, little would change other than the imposition of new government spending.16

The Future of Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income is unlikely to come before Congress anytime soon, especially with its best-known advocate no longer in the race for president. However, prior to Yang’s candidacy, a minority of voters supported or had even heard of UBI, whereas recent polling indicates that a slim majority of voters favor the idea.17 UBI is being piloted in several U.S. cities and is far more popular in Europe, with pilot programs already underway in several countries. While this is far from the first time UBI has been promoted, it is not outside the realm of possibility that with changing economic realities, the policy could continue to gain support among policymakers.18

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think that UBI would have more positive or negative effects on how Americans lead their everyday lives?
  2. Some proponents have suggested that UBI could eliminate the need for programs like unemployment benefits or food stamps. Do you think that would be a reasonable compromise? Or would those programs need to remain in place even with UBI?
  3. Think about your own family. What would an extra $1,000 per month per adult enable your family to afford what it otherwise struggles to afford or cannot currently afford? Do you think it should be the responsibility of the government and taxpayers to provide for those expenses?
  4. What are some additional or alternative programs to UBI that could be initiated to meet the challenges presented by automation and the potential loss of employment that could result?



Featured Image Credit: https://www.aljazeera.com/ajimpact/universal-basic-income-faces-sceptics-yang-gang-fans-190522185947811.html
[1] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/28/us/andrew-yang-fast-facts/index.html
[2] Freedom-Dividend.com: https://freedom-dividend.com/
[3] America: The Jesuit Review: https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2019/10/02/universal-basic-income-having-moment-can-advocates-convince-skeptical
[4] The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/07/09/who-really-stands-to-win-from-universal-basic-income
[5] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines
[6] Yang2020.com: https://www.yang2020.com/what-is-freedom-dividend-faq/
[7] Ibid
[8] National Priorities Project: https://www.nationalpriorities.org/budget-basics/federal-budget-101/spending/
[9] Freedom-Dividend.com: https://freedom-dividend.com/
[10] Vox: https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/2/13/18220838/universal-basic-income-ubi-nber-study
[11] Newsweek: https://www.newsweek.com/andrew-yang-trump-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-1465649
[12] Yang2020.com: https://www.yang2020.com/what-is-freedom-dividend-faq/
[13] Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/miltonezrati/2019/01/15/universal-basic-income-a-thoroughly-wrongheaded-idea/#775a349b45e1
[14] Independent Women’s Forum: https://www.iwf.org/blog/2809515/Why-Universal-Basic-Income-Will-Ruin-Lives
[15] Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/miltonezrati/2019/01/15/universal-basic-income-a-thoroughly-wrongheaded-idea/#775a349b45e1
[16] Medium: https://medium.com/discourse/would-a-universal-basic-income-cause-a-major-spike-in-rent-prices-50fca12b06ab
[17] The Hill: https://thehill.com/hilltv/rising/463055-more-voters-support-universal-basic-income
[18] U.S. News & World Report: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2019-10-08/canadians-and-the-british-show-more-support-for-basic-income-than-americans



Understanding Ideological Labels

During campaigns and elections, candidates use political labels, such as liberal, moderate, progressive, conservative, and libertarian, to position themselves in relation to each other and as a shorthand for their worldviews and policy preferences. This presidential election cycle features candidates from across a wider political spectrum than most elections in recent years.

In the United States, we often discuss a left-right political spectrum that might look something like this:

Socialist –> Progressive –> Liberal –> Moderate –> Conservative –> Libertarian –> Autocratic

This political ideology spectrum is confusing for several reasons. First, the far right includes both small government libertarian and autocratic/authoritarian political beliefs. Second, ideological labels such as socialist and libertarian are not commonly used and understood in the United States, although that is changing. This post offers some resources to help teachers and students explore political beliefs and values.

Aldrich-McKelvey Scaling of Canidates

Our debates in the United States take place within a small slice of the available political ideologies. To help your students explore the full range of ideas, and to see how our political debates compare to those in other countries, consider exploring The Political Compass, created by Pace News and journalist Wayne Brittenden.1

Additional Resources

Discussion Questions

  1. Do these political labels help you make sense of debates between the candidates? Why or why not?
  2. Which political label do you think best describes you? Why?
  3. When you think about candidates, how important is winning? Is it more important than political values?
  4. What political goals are most important to you? What political values?



Featured Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2016-election-map.svg
[1] Quartz.com: https://qz.com/1748903/how-2020-us-democratic-candidates-compare-to-global-politicians/




Is It a Crime When Politicians Lie?

“There’s a clear difference between politics and a crime,” Michael Levy told the Supreme Court in January,1 when he made arguments in a case about New Jersey’s “Bridgegate” scandal. As the justices considered whether or not a public official commits fraud by obfuscating the “real reason”2 behind a decision, they asked both sides tough questions and did not split along ideological lines.3 The Court’s decision could narrow or expand corruption prosecutions against politicians. So we explore the questions, do politicians lie? And is it a crime?

The Bridgegate Scandal

The George Washington Bridge is the world’s busiest, carrying 250,000 to 300,000 vehicles daily.4 In 2013, after Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., would not endorse the reelection bid of then-Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, officials on Christie’s staff concocted a fake traffic study to shut down all but one bridge lane dedicated to Fort Lee.5 Unbeknownst to local officials, closures took effect on the first day of school, resulting in massive traffic backups that included public safety vehicles seeking a missing child and responding to a cardiac arrest.6 The Bridgegate scandal lasted four days.7 At trial, Bridget Anne Kelly and William E. Baroni Jr. were convicted on the basis of evidence that included Kelly’s now-infamous email announcing it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”8

Politics or a Crime?

The deceptive study misused $5,4009 worth of Port Authority employee resources.10 Kelly’s attorney thinks prosecutors incorrectly applied fraud statutes11 since the officials reallocated public resources to another public use12 and did not “receive payments or kickbacks.”13 Government lawyers countered that Baroni commandeered resources14 because he lacked authority to realign lanes.15

Kelly’s attorney, Jacob Roth, says that if a hidden political lie or motive or lie could send a public official to prison,16 it “casts a pall over routine political conduct.”17 Roth offered hypothetical examples, such as a police chief publicly stating concerns about crime to advocate for more officers, while the real goal is to gain favor with a police union.18 “We don’t want public officials acting for personal … partisan or political reasons,” said Roth. “But … the remedy for that is not the federal property fraud statutes.”19 Roth’s preferred remedy is political consequences: Bridgegate damaged Christie’s in-state popularity and his 2016 presidential bid.20

Prosecuting Corruption

The Supreme Court seemed to apply this reasoning in 2016 with an 8-0 unanimous vacating of former Governor Bob McDonnell’s (R-Va.) corruption conviction,21 limiting bribery laws by deciding that McDonnell’s acceptance of $175,000 in money and luxury items (including a Ferrari)22 was not criminal since, as McDonnell’s lawyers said, he only provided “routine political courtesies,”23 such as setting up meetings, in exchange for the items. McDonnell’s lawyers argued, “Mere ingratiation and access are not corruption.”24 Responding to the ruling, Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said, “The Supreme Court essentially just told elected officials that they are free to sell access to their office to the highest bidder,”25 and that “if you want the government to listen to you, you had better be prepared to pay up.”26

The McDonnell case reflected many justices’ concerns over “prosecutors’ overly expansive interpretation of federal fraud and corruption laws,”27 concerns echoed in recent decisions that protected “small-time criminal defendants swept up by large-scale prosecutions.”28 Kelly, a single mother of four,29 says she is being scapegoated,30 claiming that Christie (who has called this case politically motivated) knew of the scheme.31

Former federal prosecutor Frank O. Bowman III sees this judicial trend as the Supreme Court “taking ‘an unduly protective view of official misconduct.’”32 Bowman adds, “The notion that what is otherwise plainly a crime becomes permissible because it has a political motive strikes me as just daft.”33  Bowman believes prosecutors need reasonable leeway with fraud statues “to keep up with the crooks, particularly the crooks in public office.”34

A decision in Kelly v. United States is expected in June.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it acceptable for public officials to hide true political motives and offer alternative public explanations for their actions? Why or why not?
  2. Should a head public official, like a mayor, governor, senator, or president, always be held accountable for the actions of their staff members? Why or why not?
  3. When filing their appeal to the Supreme Court, Kelly’s attorneys warned of how expanded government prosecutorial power might be used in the current partisan environment. They wrote, “If there is one thing this country does not need right now, it is a rule of law allowing a public official to be locked up based on a jury determination that she ‘lied’ by purporting to act in the public interest or by concealing her ‘political’ purposes.”35 Based on that quote, discuss the following questions:
    • How large a factor do you think partisanship will be in prosecutors’ decisions over which corruption cases to pursue?
    • How concerned are you that prosecutors would pursue corruption cases mostly or entirely for political retribution against their rivals?
    • How involved should courts be in trying to curb political corruption issues?
  4. If a government official acts for political or personal reasons, should they be subject to fines and jail time, or should their fate be left to voters in the next election? Read the following statements and quotes and decide which you agree with more and why:
    • The best remedy for dishonesty or graft in government is to make the public aware so they can vote on the basis of the potentially offensive actions. From the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ amicus brief: “If state decision makers deprive the electorate of the candid reasons for policy choices, the solution is at the ballot box, not the jury box.”36
    • If government officials act dishonestly or in their own personal interest or in that of a friend, the remedy should be criminal fraud or corruption charges with accompanying fines and jail time. From Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-R.I.) amicus brief: “The founders empowered the public to protect the public sphere against corruption, including through the jury box.”37
  5. Respond to the following questions after reading this quote from Whitehouse: “In the same way that a fish may not be aware that it’s swimming in the water, because swimming in water is so much its natural state, I think we have become a little bit desensitized to the extent to which we are now swimming in corruption.”38
    • How prevalent are political corruption issues in the U.S.?
    • How can citizens best address government corruption?




Featured Image Credit: https://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/477797-supreme-court-to-tackle-corruption-questions-in-bridgegate-cas
[1] Northjersey.com: https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/nation/2020/01/14/bridgegate-bridget-kelly-bill-baroni-appear-united-states-supreme-court-arguments/4422233002/
[2] Oyez: https://www.oyez.org/cases/2019/18-1059
[3] SCOTUSblog: https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/01/argument-analysis-justices-tackle-convictions-arising-from-bridgegate-scandal/
[4] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid
[7] Quartz: https://qz.com/1782309/a-criminal-cover-up-on-the-worlds-busiest-bridge-hits-scotus/
[8] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[9] Quartz: https://qz.com/1782309/a-criminal-cover-up-on-the-worlds-busiest-bridge-hits-scotus/
[10] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[11] Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute: https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1343
[12] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[13] SCOTUSblog: https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/01/argument-analysis-justices-tackle-convictions-arising-from-bridgegate-scandal/
[14] SCOTUSblog: https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/01/a-view-from-the-courtroom-the-bridge-and-tunnel-crowd/
[15] Philadelphia Inquirer: https://www.inquirer.com/news/bridgegate-bridget-kelly-bill-baroni-supreme-court-chris-christie-20200114.html
[16] Crain’s New York Business: https://www.crainsnewyork.com/law/bridgegate-convictions-questioned-us-supreme-court-justices
[17] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[18] Ibid
[19] Crain’s New York Business: https://www.crainsnewyork.com/law/bridgegate-convictions-questioned-us-supreme-court-justices
[20] Northjersey.com: https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/nation/2020/01/14/bridgegate-bridget-kelly-bill-baroni-appear-united-states-supreme-court-arguments/4422233002/
[21] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/27/politics/bob-mcdonnell-supreme-court/index.html
[22] NBC News: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/former-virginia-governor-robert-mcdonnell-spared-prison-sentence-n599506
[23] Ibid
[24] Ibid
[25] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/27/politics/bob-mcdonnell-supreme-court/index.html
[26] Ibid
[27] SCOTUSblog: https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/01/argument-analysis-justices-tackle-convictions-arising-from-bridgegate-scandal/
[28] Northjersey.com: https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/politics/2020/01/13/bridgegate-supreme-court-chris-christies-lane-closers/4420543002/
[29] Northjersey.com: https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/nation/2020/01/14/bridgegate-bridget-kelly-bill-baroni-appear-united-states-supreme-court-arguments/4422233002/
[30] The Hill: https://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/477797-supreme-court-to-tackle-corruption-questions-in-bridgegate-case
[31] Associated Press: https://apnews.com/20b73a43e891ad63caac459cdc604a0e
[32] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[33] Ibid
[34] Ibid
[35] NJ.com: https://www.nj.com/news/2019/06/bridget-kelly-is-unbelievably-happy-as-us-supreme-court-agrees-to-hear-bridgegate-case-attorney-says.html
[36] Quartz: https://qz.com/1782309/a-criminal-cover-up-on-the-worlds-busiest-bridge-hits-scotus/
[37] Ibid
[38] The Hill: https://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/477797-supreme-court-to-tackle-corruption-questions-in-bridgegate-case