Saturday, October 1, 2016

Define waste

While wandering the Intertubes yesterday, or, more precisely, floundering through the swamp that Facebook can be, I happened to see Robert Reich's video promoting the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). This is an old idea -- the notion that every citizen would receive a monetary stipend, no means testing or a bunch of bureaucratic hoops to jump through, that would be sufficient to pay for basic needs. If that basic income wasn't affected by a person also working, it could be a way to eliminate poverty.

To clarify, right now if you're poor and receive assistance, you get penalized for working. The modern welfare system (at least in the United States) has a number of disincentives for work built into it. If, for example, your family qualifies for SNAP benefits (aka Food Stamps), if your income goes up your SNAP benefit goes down, often dramatically and long before your income has climbed to the point where you truly do not need the assistance. Even worse, in some cases you not only don't gain anything, you actually go backwards, e.g., your income climbs by $25 and you lose $50 in SNAP benefits. (You're experiencing the raise after taxes; the system calculates the benefit as though you were getting the full amount before taxes are deducted. And, yes, the working poor pay taxes.) There's no reason to work more hours if all you're doing is screwing yourself.

If, on the other hand, you received a benefit such as the UBI that did not change no matter what you did, you would have an incentive to try to improve your situation. Make more money and you have more money to spend. More money to spend and the multiplier effect kicks in -- you're living better, and so are other people because more money is going into the economy. It's no longer a zero sum game where adding something on one end eliminates it on the other.

In the video, Reich starts with the premise that it's getting to where there are fewer and fewer jobs to go around. Thanks to improvements in robotics and cybernetics, fewer humans are required to do work in a wide variety of industries. So what happens when there are more people than there are opportunities for work of any sort? Do we continue to insist that everyone work or starve? Or do we admit reality and start providing for a way for people to lead halfway decent lives without forcing them to jump through meaningless hoops? In a more humane society, more employers would be like Kellogg once was: 100 years ago the Kellogg cereal company made a conscious decision to have the standard work shift be only 6 hours (this was at a time when 10 or 12 hour work days were common) but to pay enough in wages that workers could live comfortably on that short a shift. Kellogg wanted people to be able to spend time with their families or to, as Reich mentions in the video, feel free to pursue other interests. The 6-hour work day vanished during the 1930s, IIRC. But I digress.

Reich makes some good points, but I'm not optimistic we'll see anything remotely resembling a Universal Basic Income any time soon. As a society, we Americans have been steadily turning meaner and less charitable. Too many people live in absolute fear that someone somewhere is getting something for nothing. Spend any time in a supermarket checkout line, for example, and you're sure to see the Food Police in action: the people who seem to think it's their job to make loud nasty comments if someone with an EBT card (which is how Food Stamps are distributed these days) has the nerve to buy something - anything! - that doesn't meet with their approval. If the poor sap with the EBT card has his or her cart full of cheap pasta, the slam will be about the lack of a balanced diet and no fresh vegetables or protein. If the EBT user does have fresh fruit or maybe a pot roast in the cart, the slam is then about the benefits must be really generous if the user can afford to get a few bananas. And god forbid there's a "luxury" item like a tub of ice cream or a bag of chips -- after all, one of the rules for being poor is that you never get to indulge in any treats no matter how small or innocuous.  You're supposed to visibly suffer if you're poor, as if poverty wasn't enough of a punishment in itself.

In any case, the equivalent of the Food Police left a comment when I shared the Reich video on Facebook. The commenter expressed the concern that a person receiving a cash benefit would "waste" it, spend it unwisely on foolish items. Well, one person's perception of waste is another person's idea of a necessity -- or at least of a worthwhile diversion. You know, if you're on a fixed income and you can't afford much in the way of entertainment, maybe from a purely practical point of view it is a waste of money for you to go to Bingo once a week. But if that's your only indulgence why the fuck should anyone care? It's your money, not theirs.

If you give someone a gift card to Kohl's, you don't get any say in what they spend it on so what gives anyone the right to get judgemental about how other people are spending their disability checks or EBT benefits? In both cases you can claim it's your money, either directly or through taxes, but oddly enough people will act pissier about what total strangers do with an EBT card than they do about what someone they actually know does with a gift card they purchased directly.

And here's another thought, courtesy of the S.O. Instead of bitching about how people are using their EBT benefits, maybe we should be happy to see some tax money coming back into the local community instead of being pissed away on a $1.5 billion ship that this country didn't need and the Pentagon never asked for.

The commenter also mentioned knowing people who are on disability or Social Security who run out of money before the month ends. When that happens, they then hit up friends and acquaintances for loans or do stuff like go to the local food bank. I have three thoughts:
  • If people are going to a food bank or trying to get other assistance (e.g., a utilities voucher), they probably need to. Most people don't stand in line on Obama Day or go talk to the folks at St. Vincent de Paul unless they actually need the help. If someone on Social Security is also relying on food bank assistance, this is a pretty good sign their budget it pretty tight. I know there are exceptions -- we had an elderly relative who went to every commodities distribution and food bank giveaway she heard about and hauled home tons of food she never used, but then she had lived through the Great Depression so her hoarding made a weird kind of sense. Most people aren't interested in getting canned mystery meat or multiple bags of lentils. Even the cheese isn't as good as it used to be.
  • The fact someone is getting a disability (SSDI) check or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) check does not mean they are getting a ton of money. In 2016, for example, the minimum benefit payment is $733. Quite a few people on SSDI or SSI get that minimum benefit or not much above it. If your monthly income is that low, odds are that the money will indeed run out before the month does. So maybe instead of bitching about how poor those people are with money, as a society we should be thinking about increasing the amount of the benefits.
  • If someone is asking you for a loan because they need some cash for beer or cigarettes or something else you view as foolish, there's a simple solution. Just say No. You don't want to support their bad habits? Then don't. Maybe they should learn to budget better or maybe they have expenses you don't know about, but if they're asking for money for stuff you consider a waste you don't have to give them anything. Just don't lecture them about their bad choices. You're not their Mom. Just like you're not under any obligation to give them an allowance for the candy store, you're not in a position to tell them how to live their lives. Not your circus, not your monkey.


  1. I would support UBI. It is being talked about in Canada

  2. Not including the Congress, that will work only 111 days this year, the people that would oppose this most are many of the people that would benefit from it.

    It is a socialist concept, just a different twist from all jobs government. Socialism would be the perfect prescription for world poverty; but you can't have a government that takes care of people and a military that sucks half of the government spending.

    Sounds like a great concept; but it is not in the human DNA to actually take care of other human beings.

    Besides if everyone had their basic needs met, who would the rich control?

    the Ol'Buzzard


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