Former Vice President Joe Biden made news last week with a big push around his new institute at the University of Delaware that will in large part focus on addressing the big challenges facing today’s American workers. While his message about the dignity of work is as admirable as the messenger, he ultimately misses an opportunity to also value economic stability and worker power by not preemptively dismissing the concept of a universal basic income.
Far from the Silicon Valley fad Mr. Biden suggests it is, a universal basic income was proposed as a redress for the working class as far back as Thomas Paine and was cited by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as “the solution to poverty.” Current supporters of a basic income or recurring cash transfer program span the political spectrum and include some of the brightest economic minds of our time – the likes of Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, and Bob Reich. And in her latest book, Hillary Clinton declared her support for the concept of a guaranteed income, going as far as evaluating the idea as a potential policy proposal for her 2016 presidential campaign and abandoning the approach when her team “couldn’t make the numbers add up.”
The reason the idea of a basic income has picked up steam in recent years is simple: there’s a Category 5 storm about to hit our shores in the form of massive economic displacement and low paying jobs and we need bold ideas to head it off.
The past few years have witnessed major shifts in the way our society operates – and there is no end in sight. From Wal-Mart – one of the world’s largest employers – announcing it will no longer have cashiers, to Congress now working on legislation to regulate driverless vehicles, to automated stock trading and accounting where real people used to manage the work, the evidence is everywhere of the major job impacts set for a head on collision with American workers. In the face of automation and globalization and the changing nature of work itself, this is a moment for big ideas and scenario planning on how best to manage a massive, fast approaching economic disruption – and a universal basic income should be part of the solution.
As a man who believes in the value of work on so many levels, I share Mr. Biden’s commitment to ensuring a better future for working families. But we can’t just double down on what hasn’t worked, and we’ve learned all too well that “shovel-ready” projects never materialize easily into the major job creators they are touted to be. At the same time, we’ve been talking about skills-training for 50 years – yet college graduates today are making no more money in real terms than high school graduates did 20 years ago.
At the end of the day, it’s a good thing to have people like Joe Biden discussing a universal basic income, even in passing. But while he continues to help working people and attempts to shore up American workers, he should join us in exploring how a basic income can rebalance our economy or make his contribution with the development of a real jobs program with policy specifics and funding – and then compare it to a basic income. As Winston Churchill once mused about democracy, -it’s a terrible idea until you try everything else. I suspect Mr. Biden will try jobs, but find that cash transfers, like a universal basic income, make a lot more sense for the future.
Following up on his announcement about the Biden Institute, the former Vice President spoke to a group of CEOs about his plan. His essential premise was that we’re all in this together, and his initiative to encourage economic growth can only succeed with a commitment from the nation’s largest companies to do their part. Missing from that conversation is the understanding that a universal basic income would empower workers to make their own destiny in a way that workplace benefits can augment, but shouldn’t supplant.
History is strewn with good intentions and failed outcomes when we count on businesses to serve the people or to serve our communities instead of their shareholders and executives. There are plenty of good companies in the world – but the truth is the American people have always relied on labor unions, the Democratic Party, government, and on themselves. Corporations can and should contribute, but I wouldn’t bet my future on it.
What the last election showed is this is a time for big ideas – whether we’re talking about Medicare for All, free college, or renegotiating trade agreements. If people want to build the kind of world where we have a great middle class again, it’s time to think big and dream – not pull out the abacus.
As Mr. Biden looks ahead – potentially – to the next election, I hope he heeds the call.