A Call for Universal Income
America has changed. We’re unquestionably facing a new normal, with social distancing, face masks and gloves, and telecommuting likely to be with us for quite some time. Additionally, many of the businesses that were viable pre-pandemic simply aren’t going to make it — despite the Paycheck Protection Program — and finding our way back to historically low levels of unemployment will probably take a lot longer than many of us had initially expected.
Expecting Federal loans and grants directed to small businesses and selected “critical industries” to be able to sustain the pre-virus level of economic activity increasingly seems like a pipe dream. It’s time to set alternative objectives and to re-focus our fiscal policies to distribute the benefits more equitably. A universal subsistence income — with periodic (e.g., monthly) distributions — would seem to be a foundational element of this new orientation. It’s the most efficient and logical way to address life’s basic necessities broadly, which has become growing concern for larger and larger segments of our society as the duration of sheltering in place extends and as the “natural” rate of unemployment moves to levels not seen since the great depression. (The concern that a universal income would be too expensive without means testing is a canard. Such distributions should be subject to a specific provision in the tax code to claw-back up to portions of those distributions, progressively, above predetermined income thresholds.)
Beyond a guaranteed subsistence income, future Federal policy and fiscal stimulus initiatives should focus on protecting public sector services. Restaurants can come and go, but services of the police, fire and sanitation departments, public health professionals, and teachers are critical to any return to normalcy. I don’t mean to denigrate restaurants. They’re an important source of employment and well-being, but they’re not the front-line heroes. State and local governments, on the other hand, are. Fiscal policy should revise priorities, accordingly.