Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income is one of those ideas that really light up the imagination.  While UBI as a concept is pretty well-known, it really gained widespread renown when democratic candidate Andrew Yang made it his centerpiece proposal during his 2020 run.  Yang’s campaign never gained traction with the American public and largely went down in flames.  But I’ve been recently pondering UBI and its implications.

America intrigues me because it’s largely the only remaining country that believes in meritocracy and luck.  Nordic countries, and Europe, more generally, have embraced a model of intrinsically valuing human life.  But here in America we’ve largely resisted that sentiment.  If you look at the way we treat our incarcerated and impoverished (people in the bottom socioeconomic strata), it’s very clear that Americans just don’t care.  (If you somehow doubt this, look at America’s response to COVID-19 in 2020 compared to every single other advanced democracy.)  The United States is a very individualist society and there’s a general feeling that while there exist some basic social safety nets (like the ADA is a thing; if you’re wheelchair-bound, public universities and most buildings will meet ADA requirements such as wheelchair ramps, braille on signs, etc), aside from the minimal basics, Americans are simply plenty content with just letting other fellow Americans die or starve in the streets if we see them to be “not useful to society.”

I think one way UBI could gain more traction with more Americans is if we framed it more as a Guggenheim grant/MacArthur Fellowship dispensation system.  Yang’s mistake was to emphasize the “Universal” part in his appeal.  The problem with this is while the bottom half is hugely into it (because they’ll be taking), the upper half is less pleased because they’ll be giving.  Appealing to our common humanity is a losing argument (as I think Yang’s failed campaign proves).  Instead:  Frame it in vocabulary and concepts that most Americans will more readily accept– as a more “elitist/special” dispensation.  Everyone (especially Americans!  Ha.) like to be told that “they are special.”  We can thank a lifetime of Disney and American Exceptionalism for that.  Who wouldn’t want to receive a call saying they’re a “MacArthur Genius” or a “Guggenheim Fellow” and are being awarded free money every quarter for the next ten years?  Then over time, find a way to expand the recipient pool until it’s increasingly universal.

Yang, man, you’re a smart dude.  Trojan horse UBI into the public American consciousness by initially making it non-universal and exclusive.  Artificial scarcity!  That’ll be how you win American hearts and minds.