Basic income—just giving everyone a certain amount of money, is an idea with a lot to recommend it.  In any society which isn’t willing to just let people suffer or die because they don’t have money, there is a “social welfare net” with a vast bureaucracy.  Why not just give everyone enough money to live on, and wipe out most of that bureaucracy?  If you’re going to give poor people money anyway, it’s more efficient, and vastly less humiliating.

There’s a great deal of controversy around the idea of technological unemployment (economists sneeringly dismiss the idea on aggregate as the “lump of labor” fallacy), but even if you don’t believe in it en-gross, changing technology does cause specific people, often large numbers of them, to lose their jobs, and many of them never work again, or if they do, work at terrible jobs.  A basic income deals with this issue, at least somewhat, and, again, far more efficiently than welfare and unemployment insurance and so on.  And if you believe that there will be widespread technological improvement as AI and robotics improve, this will mitigate against it.

In a demand based society; a consumer society, where the economy is based on large numbers of people buying things, a basic income makes sense.  People with no (or too little) money, don’t spend it (obviously) and that’s bad for the economy.  Every dollar you give a poor person gets spent; it immediately goes to someone else, and that means that even those who are well off have reason to be for a basic income: most of it is going to wind up in their hands, and if it doesn’t (because you have a basic income which goes to everyone, not just those below a certain income), well, they still get theirs.

One might point out that we’re moving away from a demand based society, however, at least in the West. More than all the productivity gains of the last business cycle in the US, for example, have gone to the top 10% (really the top 3%).  Consumer inflation is flat, and in many countries verging on deflation, while the goods that the rich buy (investment art, Manhattan and London real-estate) are booming.  Moving away from a broad-based demand society, such as we had in the post-war liberal era was mainly done because it benefited the rich, but it also solved another problem—increased demand fed into oil and other commodity prices, and as the 70s  and early 80s showed, that lead to huge inflation and economic dislocation.

So basic income, at any level that would be equivalent to a living wage (aka. letting people live a decent life, not just barely scrape by), can be expected to spike inflation in various commodities, including oil.  This is a problem, but it’s not a huge problem, because we finally have the technology which allows us to move off oil (not completely, but enough to mitigate the effect of demand increases), and because, hey, we’re flirting with deflation anyway.

The real problem with basic income has to do with who controls our economy—with the fact that we are sold what we need, by and large, by oligopolies.  A few large companies control most industries, and effectively price set.  (Broadband profits in the US are almost 100% a year.)

This is known as pricing power. When someone needs what you sell more than you need to sell it to them; when they have little choice but to pay what you ask, you can demand a premium.  If something is scarce, either naturally or artificially, those who control it get more of the share of national income than otherwise.  In a society whose economy is not controlled by oligopolies this is usually a good thing—prices go up, more people enter the industry, prices drop.  That’s the what the economics textbooks tell you happens.  But it doesn’t happen in an oligopolistic economy where the oligopolists control government and where barriers to entry are very high.

So those who are in an oligopolistic situation, whether telecom companies, health insurers, pharmaceutical companies or landlords, are generally able to set prices: you must have medicine, you must have shelter, and in a modern economy, try and get by without a phone and internet.

What this means is that increases in income, especially at the lower end, tend to be simply taken away by those who have what you must have.  Everyone will know what the basic income is, and they will know who is surviving on just that, or just that plus a low-wage job.  And they will raise prices so that money goes to them.

Basic income which does include either oligopoly busting or regulation (or having the government, oh, just provide broadband and/or housing itself) will help many people, to be sure.  But in a not very long time, most of the gains will be eaten by those who have pricing power.

This, by the way, is far from a “socialist” theory. This comes out of bog-standard neo-classical economics.  Non-competitive markets tend towards concentration of wealth, and those who have pricing power use it (they act in their own self-interest, precisely as economics says they will.)  Markets are wonderful things. They are extremely efficient at allocating money.  And they will do exactly what they are set up to do.  In an oligopoly situation, with capture of government, they will allocate that money very quickly to the oligopolists.

So if you want basic income to work, you must also make capitalism work. You must create actual competitive markets, you must-trust bust, you must regulate and you must move, as government, to ensure that the important things people will spend that basic income on are not scarce—either naturally or artificially.

This extends far beyond basic income.  A market economy; a capitalist economy, works to the benefit of the majority only when it is competitive and when scarcities are actively managed, ideally to remove them, and when they can’t be removed, to ensure that those who provide scare necessities, do not reap outsize profits which allow them to buy up the rest of the system, including government and civic society.

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