Universal Basic Income and the Custodial Administrative State

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The American Families Plan (EFP), touted both before and during President Biden’s address to Congress, is still a work in progress, with “fact sheet” details still materializing. The media have asked few penetrating questions about the AFP and its predecessors. The American Rescue Plan and the American Jobs Plan that preceded the AFP got a similar pass. Yet, each has borne progressively less relation to pandemic response.

Progressives are not even coy about the overall effect, which is to cement cradle-to-grave custodianship of adults. Indeed, the new AFP proposes hundreds more billions in spending for free universal preschool for all three- and four-year-olds, two years of free community college, refundable tax credits, and new national paid-leave programs.

Ambitions parallel programs include expanding food subsidies without congressional involvement and controlling daily choices with interventions justified by still-another crisis, the purported climate one.  

In an advanced administrative state with few bounds on central power, spending is regulation. The assumption by government of responsibility for the ordinary tasks of life for the entire population means regulating everything from banking to what people spend their money on to how they are tracked online.

The new American Families Plan is a start, not a finish to the cultivation of healthy human adults and the children they should be rearing as federal pets. Bewildered Republicans still somehow do not grasp that what is materializing is not new nor a circumstance of Biden going it alone; some in the GOP even bizarrely see what is happening as a “GOP opportunity” in 2022. The seeds for this harvest of humanity by social program were planted way back in the 20th century, and watered by Obama State of the Union addresses and the Hillary Clinton economic agenda. Progressives are constructing a foundation for spoils for well over half the population with which Republicans cannot compete.

So where is it all heading? Fantasized over for years and looming even without the “stimulus” of crisis is the so-called universal basic income (UBI), which embodies the ultimate aim for progressives’ multifaceted crisis agitation. Left-wing media allies signaled support early on for the concept of long-term monthly government checks merely for being alive. The Financial Times, for example, called for a UBI and wealth taxes besides. So let’s look at how things developed over the past year.

At the outbreak of the virus, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) implored the Senate to “put our party labels at the door.” But progressives were not required to bend convictions or to sacrifice anything in response to either the natural or man-made components of the COVID-19 crisis. While there were inconsequential exceptions to this, such as temporarily pausing government schools, aversion to mass transit, and border clampdowns, even the resumption of these are being steered to benefit progressives’ pursuit of power.

The reality is that coronavirus never posed a threat to the radical progressive project. Quite the contrary, as many have pointed out, the contagion was seized upon to advance an in-progress agenda. This is a reason an Abuse-of-Crisis Prevention Act is urgently needed, as well as a vision to shrink the federal government to a shadow of its current bulk and let individuals keep their own income.

Instead, we got Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) appeal, simultaneous with Durbin’s, to “rise above our partisanship.” This was naïve in the extreme, and something Republicans too often do. The Trump administration that in 2020 had sought a payroll tax cut quickly shifted to embrace the idea of larger one-time checks to go to people whether they were working or not. Getting Republicans to support a one-time payment was needed before getting them to accept multiple payments, which they have. Republican leadership, despite going through the motions of disagreement in later months (as they are now doing with infrastructure), confronted parameters preordained by their own prior acquiescence. These new parameters, in turn, herald a future UBI without a major counterreaction.

The doors to UBI and custodianship were rapidly kicked open around the globe, not just in the U.S. As the World Economic Forum put it, “a new social contract needs to emerge from this crisis that rebalances deep inequalities that are prevalent across societies. To put it bluntly: The question should no longer be whether resources for effective social protection can be found—but how they can be found. UBI promises to be a useful element of such a framework.”

Nothing ambiguous about that. Countries like Spain announced plans to roll out UBI (sometimes called guaranteed minimum income or GMI), with the ambition that it “stays forever, that it becomes a structural instrument, a permanent instrument.” New York mayoral candiate Andrew Yang expressed the desire for such a program to be implemented in the U.S.

The growing synergy of spending and regulation has been noted, and the UBI represents the zenith of social and economic regulation. Rights bring responsibility, but what is one’s responsibility in exchange for the UBI? Clearly, it would be submission to untold forms of personal and familial regulation. We can expect renewed calls for the likes of mandatory national service programs. Some influential billionaires and others have called for a federal jobs program during the pandemic.

Payments that facilitated the shift from “flatten the curve” to staying closed altogether in 2020 are being repeated in 2021’s American Plans. Let’s look as some of the examples of the shift from the ethic of paid work to paid non-work:  

One, the rapidly deployed $600 weekly supplemental unemployment package benefit in early 2020, at $15 per hour and over twice the federal minimum wage, reeked of UBI ambitions, particularly in combination with state benefits then ranging from $235 to $795 weekly. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the payment “exceeded the weekly amounts [employees] could expect to earn from work” for “roughly five of every six recipients.” The package rendered some businesses unable to operate thanks to the unintended (allegedly) consequence of earning more staying home than working. This phenomenon persists in 2021, with the typical suspect media denials (such as NPR) that the benefits are a factor in unwillingness to work.

Two, keeping kids out of school often keeps parents out of work, which in turn increases pressures for more rounds of cash payments for households and dependents. The CARES Act was the first multi-trillion package, and its expiration, close to an election with kids remaining home and cold weather looming, set the stage for agitation damning the payments as inadequate. Those materialized in late 2020 with a round of $600 payments, which were deemed inadequate even by then-President Donald Trump.

Third, never a “living wage,” the minimum wage is chastised by its failure to live up to that artificial standard. Nevertheless, the coronavirus did not dampen the progressive push to raise the minimum to at least $15 at the time it could least be afforded. It is counterproductive to destroy the underlying business to which workers would return. If the minimum wage does get increased, those laid off would need to turn to the federal government for relief.

Fourth, stimulus payouts from the CARES Act to the American Rescue Plan went out indiscriminately to even some well-off, employed, and retired households that had experienced no loss of or interruption of income. This occurred with no requirement to repay or having paid federal tax (stimulus checks were not considered “income” for tax purposes). That broad sweep is a basic tenet of UBI; everybody gets it, hence it’s “universal.”

All such maneuvering in pursuit of a larger welfare state is best understood as a feature not a bug. Biden even calls what is happening “building back better,” while his global counterparts call it “reset.”

Biden proclaimed back in December, in support of major state and local bailouts, “any package, passed in a lame-duck session, is likely to be at best just a start. … My transition team is already working on what I’ll put forward in the next Congress to address the multiple crises we’re facing.” The UBI was already a fixture in Democratic presidential primaries, so the concern now is conservatives rolling over for it. That is a grave risk, since those championing a UBI and its inevitability even tout some libertarian luminaries’ support of one.

While making payments to all regardless of need is a UBI tenet in theory, it is also a political imperative. A spoils system works best with support of 51 percent of the populace, and crisis—it did not have to be coronavirus—is just what the doctor ordered. As noted, stimulus cash payments were made to those not out of work, such as those able to telework throughout the crisis, seniors, and retirees on fixed incomes whose cash flow had not been disrupted. Even here more cash was added, such as payments for children. As also noted, funds were not made repayable or refundable above a threshold (which could have been done based on income tax filing for 2020 if income maintained at 2019 levels). Omitting guardrails was part of the political imperative. Unfairly in this context, essential workers with public-facing jobs, not just medical but in sectors like retail and banking, had to carry on no matter what.

Sen. Durbin proclaimed in the earliest days, “we’re not just going just to send you one check and wish you the best, we’re going to stand by you” for the duration. This proved to be true.

The support for UBI goes deep, and organized opposition is not apparent. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called a guaranteed income “worthy of our attention” in early stimulus negotiations.” As months passed, we saw amplification of local, state, and national UBI pilot projects and proposals, including California giving $500 to those residing in the state even if undocumented. In May 2020, then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced a bill that would pay $2000 to workers for whatever the duration of the coronavirus crisis turns out to be. Married couples would get $4,000 plus $2,000 for each child.

The Pope is on board with the UBI. The UBI is popular with billionaires, with many tech executives having long seen the UBI as the solution to many social ills, including coping with technological job displacement. Tech bosses like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey have donated millions to UBI test projects, so it is perhaps only fitting that many of the same super-wealthy call for taxing themselves. They may get that tax, and perhaps the progressives’ intended emergency “pandemic wealth” tax as well. Whatever virtue-signaling dalliances today’s billionaires pursue, it is inappropriate for them to inflict confiscatory taxation upon successors who become wealthy.

All told, the UBI is simply too politically irresistible to exploit, even if all problems are solvable without it. The left’s ace in the hole for a massive social cash program is that Republicans who defend large-scale corporate bailouts occupy no moral position to oppose the UBI. While cash support has obviously happened in prior crises, some of those same Republicans, such as Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Tom Cotton (R-AR), have cash proposals of their own. Sen. Josh Hawley would have the federal government cover up to 80 percent of workers’ wages, as has occurred in England. 

There are debates over whether the UBI would render the populace lazy or creative, reminiscent of the “liberation” claims made with respect to Obamacare. Part of the answer depends upon the independent streak people retain or lose. Shutdowns may not have been tolerated by the public only a few short years ago. From the glass-half-full perspective, the Internet unquestionably eased the crisis ordeal and protected many by making shopping, teleworking and Zooming from home feasible. From the half empty perspective, it allowed what to prior generations would have been unthinkable clampdowns in the name of a biological contagion.

There is a long continuum from Americans’  low tolerance for forced shutdown without rebellion to full passivity in the face of a government paycheck without work. Policy makers are watching closely and have surely learned they can render some normality with income and entertainment. That observation is consistent with and perhaps reflected in calls for billions in broadband infrastructure stimulus allegedly for enabling telework.

Many rightly point out the myths and oversimplifications of online addiction; I am one of them (our great grandparents feared the influence on young grandpa of his comic books). Nonetheless, the UBI in particular is an obvious step to induce passivity and regulate a population.

UBI proponents foreign and domestic make suspect promises regarding the program’s negative effects and cost, so we should expect to hear more of this. United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Kanni Wignaraja proclaimed of the UBI that, “Moving to such a system would need to ensure that the incentives to have a job remain intact. That is relatively simple to do: A UBI should be sufficient, to sustain a person at a modest minimum, leaving sufficient incentives to work, save, and invest.” But this is plainly untrue: UBI proponents uniformly favor massive wealth redistribution and unlimited democracy as opposed to limited republican government. They know full well that populations will continue to agitate for more income at those very proponents’ instigation. Moreover, when such officials’ reassurances fail, they can make threats. As Wignaraja said on another occasion, “The alternative to not having UBI is worse—the rising likelihood of social unrest, conflict, unmanageable mass migration and the proliferation of extremist groups that capitalize and ferment on social disappointment.”

It is time for crisis to go to waste, and the only way for that to occur is with full throated opposition. We have often noted that an Abuse-of-Crisis Prevention Act is necessary. On the way, the UBI extremists need to be confronted.