Poverty Under Democratic Socialism — Part III: Is the U.S. Denmark?

The Americans who call themselves “socialists,” do not, by and large, think in terms of government ownership of the means of production. Their frequent muted and truncated references to Sweden and Denmark indicate instead that they long for a high guarantees, high services state, with correspondingly high taxation (at least, for the more realistic among them).

When I try to understand the quasi-programmatics of the American left today, I find several axes: End Time-ism, a penchant for demanding that one’s collective guilt be dramatically exhibited; old-style pacifism (to an extent), a furious envy and resentment of the successful; indifference to hard facts, a requirement to be taken care of in all phases of life; a belief in the virtuousness and efficacy of government that is immune to all proof, demonstration, and experience. All this is often backed by a vigorous hatred of “corporations,” though I guess that not one in ten “progressives” could explain what a corporation is (except those with a law degree and they often misuse the term in their public utterances).

I am concerned that the last three features – nonchalance about facts, the wish to be cared for, and belief in government – are being woven together by the American left (vaguely defined) into what looks like a feasible project. I think that’s what they mean when they mention “democratic socialism.” The proponents seem to know no history. They are quick to dismiss the Soviet Union, currently foundering Venezuela, and even scrawny Cuba, as utterly irrelevant (though they retain a soft spot for the latter). And truly, those are not good examples of the fusion of socialism and democracy (because the latter ingredient was and is lacking). When challenged, again, American proponents of socialism refer vaguely to Sweden and to Denmark, about which they also seem to know little. (Incidentally, I personally think both countries are good societies.)

The wrong models of democratic socialism

Neither Sweden nor Denmark, however, is a good model for an eventual American democratic socialism. For one thing, the vituperative hatred of corporations on the American left blocks the path of economic growth plus re-distribution that has been theirs. In those two countries, capitalism is, in fact, thriving. (Think Ikea and Legos). Accordingly, both Sweden and Denmark have moderate corporate tax rates of 22% (same as the new Trump rate), higher than the German rate of only 16%, but much lower than the French rate of 34%.

The two countries pay for their generous welfare state in two intimately related ways. First, their populace agrees to high personal income taxes. The highest marginal rates are 60+% in Denmark and 57+% in Sweden. (It’s 46% currently in the US.) The Danes and the Swedes agree to such high rates for two reasons. For one thing, these rates are applied in a comparatively flat manner. Everyone pays high taxes; the rich are not publicly victimized. This is perceived as fair (though possibly destructive to economic growth). For another thing, their governments deliver superb social services in return for the high taxes paid.

This is the second way in which Danes and Swedes pay for their so-called “socialism” (actually welfare for all): They trust their government and the associated civil services. They generally don’t think of either as corrupt, or incompetent, as many, or at least a large minority of Americans do. As an American, I think of this trust as a price to pay. (I am not thinking of gross or bloody dictatorship here but more of routine time-wasting, exasperating visits to the Department of Motor Vehicles.) The Danes and the Swedes, with a different modern experience, do not share this revulsion or this skepticism.

Denmark and Sweden are both small countries, with populations of fewer than six million and about ten million, respectively. This means that the average citizen is not much separated from government. This short power distance works both ways. It’s one reason why government is trusted. It makes it relatively easy for citizens’ concerns to reach the upper levels of government without being distorted or abstracted. (5) The closeness also must make it difficult for government broadly defined to ignore citizens’ preoccupations. Both counties are, or were until recently, quite homogeneous. I used to be personally skeptical of the relevance of this matter, but Social-Democrat Danes have told me that sharing with those who look and sound less and less like your cousins becomes increasingly objectionable over time.

In summary, it seems to me that if the American left – with its hatred of corporations – tries to construct a Denmark in the US, it’s likely to end up instead with a version of its dream more appropriate for a large, heterogeneous county, where government moreover carries a significant defense burden and drains ever more of the resources of society. The French government’s 55% take of GDP is worth remembering here because it’s a measure of the slow strangling of civil society, including in its tiny embodiments such as frequenting cafés. In other words, American democratic socialists will likely end up with a version of economically stuck, rigid, disappointing France. It will be a poor version of France because a “socialist” USA would not have a ready-made, honest, elite corps of administrators largely sharing their view of the good society, such as ENA, that made the unworkable work for a good many years. And, of course, the quality of American restaurant fare would remain the same. The superior French gourmet experience came about and is nurtured precisely by sectors of the economy that stayed out of the reach of statism.

Poverty under democratic socialism is not like the old condition of shivering naked under rain, snow, and hail; it’s more like wearing clothes that are three sizes too small. It smothers you slowly until it’s too late to do anything.

(5) When there are multiple levels of separation between the rulers and the ruled, the latter’s infinitely variegated needs and desires have to be gathered into a limited number of categories before being sent up to the rulers for an eventual response. That is, a process of generalization, of abstraction intervenes which does not exist when, for example, the apprentice tells his master, “I am hungry.”

[Editor’s note: Part I can be found here, Part II here, and the entire, longform essay can be read in its entirety here.]

Poverty Under Democratic Socialism — Part I: the French Case

I saw a televised investigation by the pretty good French TV show, “Envoyé spécial” about current French poverty. It brought the viewer into the lives of six people. They included a retired married couple. The four others were of various ages. They lived in different parts of mainland France. All sounded French born to me. (I have a good ear for accents; trust me.) All were well spoken. The participants had been chosen to illustrate a sort of middle-class poverty, maybe. Or, perhaps to illustrate the commonness of poverty in one of the first countries to industrialize.

All the interviewees looked good. They seemed healthy. None was emaciated; none was grossly obese, as the ill-fed everywhere often are. All were well dressed, by my admittedly low standards. (I live in the People’s Democratic Republic of Santa Cruz, CA where looking dapper is counter-revolutionary.) None of those featured was in rags or wearing clothes inappropriate for the season.

The reporter took the viewer into these people’s homes. There was no indoor tour but you could see that the outside of the houses was in good repair. Most of the interviewing took place in kitchens. Every kitchen seemed equipped like mine, more than adequately. There was a range and a refrigerator in each. Every house had at least one television set.(I couldn’t determine of what quality.) No one said he or she was cold in the winter though two complained about their heating bills.

The show was geared to sob stories and it got them. Each participant expressed his or her frustration about lacking “money,” precisely, specifically. It seems to me that all but two talked about money for “extras.” I am guessing, that “extras” mean all that is not absolutely necessary to live in fairly dignified comfort. One single woman in her forties mentioned that she had not had a cup of coffee in a café for a year or more. (Keep her in mind.)

Another woman talked about the difficulty of keeping her tank filled. She remarked that a car was indispensable where she lived, to go to her occasional work and to doctors’ appointments. Her small car looked fine in the video. The woman drove it easily, seemingly without anxiety or effort.

A woman of about forty, divorced, took care of her two teenage daughters at home two weeks out of each month. She explained how she went without meat for all of the two weeks that her daughters were away. She did this so she could afford to serve them meat every day that they were with her. I could not repress the spontaneous and cynical reaction that most doctors would probably approve of her diet.

Yet, another woman, single and in her thirties, displayed her monthly budget on her kitchen table. She demonstrated easily that once she had paid all her bills, she had a pathetically small amount of money left. (I think it was about $120 for one month.) She had a boyfriend, a sort of good-looking live-in help whose earnings, if any, were not mentioned.

The retired couple sticks to my mind. The man was a retired blue-collar worker. They were both alert and in good shape. Their living room was comfy. They also talked about their bills – including for heating – absorbing all of their income. The wife remarked that they had not taken a vacation in several years. She meant that she and her husband had not been able to get away on vacation, somewhere else, away from their house and from their town. They lived close to a part of France where some rich Americans dream of retiring some day, and where many Brits actually live.

I ended up a little perplexed. On the one hand, I could empathize with those people’s obvious distress. On the other hand, I got yanked back to reality toward the end when the retired lady blamed the government for the tightness of her household budget. Then I realized that others had tacitly done the same. The consensus – which the reporter did not try expressly to produce – would have been something like this: The government should do something for me (no matter who is responsible for the dire straights I am in now).

Notably, not one of the people in the report had a health care complaint, not even the senior retired couple.

So, of course, I have to ask: Why are all those people who live far from abject poverty, by conventional standards, why do all those people convey unhappiness?

The first answer is obvious to me only because I was reared in France, where I retain substantial ties: Many small French towns are dreadfully boring, always have been. That’s true, at least, if you don’t fish and hunt, or have a passion for gardening, and if you don’t attend church. (But the French are not going to church anymore; nothing has taken the social place of church.)

And then, there is the issue of what the French collectively can really afford. This question in turn is related to productivity and, separately, to taxation. I consider each in turn.

French productivity

According to the most conventional measure – value produced per hour worked – French productivity is very high, close to the German, and not far from American productivity: Something like 93% of American productivity for the French vs 95% for the Germans. (Switzerland’s is only 86%.) However, to discuss how much money is available for all French people together, we need another measure: the value of French production divided by the number of French people. Annual Gross Domestic Product per capita is close enough for my purpose. (The version I use is corrected to incorporate the fact that the buying power of a dollar is not the same in all countries: “GDP/capita, Purchasing Power Parity”).

For 2017, the French GDP/capita was $43,600, while the German was $50,200. (The American was $59,500.) Keep in mind the $6,600 difference between the French and the German GDP/capita (data).

If French workers are almost as productive as the Germans when they work, what can account for the low French GDP/capita? The answer is that the French don’t work much. Begin with the 35/hr legal work week. (1) (A study published recently in the daily Le Figaro asserts that 1/3 of the 1.1 million public servants work even less than 35 hours per week.) Consider also the universal maximum retirement age of 62 (vs 67 in Germany), a spring quarter pleasantly spiked with three-day weekends for all, a legal annual vacation of at least thirty days applied universally, a common additional (short) winter (snow) vacation. I have read (I can’t confirm the source) that the fully employed members of the French labor force work an average of 600 hours per year, one of the lowest counts in the world. Also log legal paid maternity leave. Finish with an official unemployment rate hovering around 9 to 10% for more than thirty years. All this, might account for the $6,600 per year that the Germans have and the French don’t.

There is more that is seldom mentioned. The fastest way for a country to raise the official, numerical productivity of its workers is to put out of work many of its low-productive workers. (That’s because the official figure is an arithmetic mean, an average.) This can be achieved entirely through regulations forbidding, for example, food trucks, informal seamstress services, and old-fashioned hair salons in private living rooms, and, in general, by making life less than easy for small businesses based on traditional techniques. This can be achieved entirely – and even inadvertently – from a well-meaning wish to regulate for the collective good. The more of this you do, the higher your productivity per capita appears to be and also, the higher your unemployment, and the less income is available to go around. I think the official high French productivity oddly distorts the image of real French income. I suspect it fools many French people, including public officials: They think they are wealthier than they are.

La vie est belle!

The French have nearly free health care – which works approximately as well as Medicare in the USA, well enough, anyway. (French life expectancy is higher than American expectancy.) Education is tuition-free at all levels. There are free school lunches for practically anyone who asks. University cafeterias are subsidized by the government (and pretty good by, say, English restaurant standards!) Many college students receive a stipend. Free drop-off daycare centers are common in big and in medium-size cities. Unemployment benefits can easily last for two years, three for older workers. They amount to something like 55% of the last wages earned, up to 75% for some.

That’s not all. The fact that France won the World Cup in soccer in 2018 suggests that the practice of that sport is widespread and well supported. It’s mostly government subsidized. Other sports are also well subsidized. French freeways are second to none. They are mostly turnpikes but the next network of roads down is excellent, and even the next below that. This is all kind of munificent, by American standards. The French are taken care of, almost no matter what. The central government handles nearly all of this distribution of services directly and some, indirectly through grants that local entities have to beg for.

Someone has to pay for all this generosity. After sixty or seventy years, many, perhaps most French people, still believe that the rich, the very rich, have enough money that can be pried from their clutching hands to pay for the good things they have, plus the better things they wish for. (No hard numbers here, but I would bet that ¾ of French adults believe this.) In fact, multi-fingered, ubiquitous, invasive taxation of the many who are not very rich pays for all of it.

French taxation

The French value added tax (VAT) is 20% on nearly all transactions. When a grower sells $100 of apples to a jelly producer, the bill comes to $120. When the jelly-maker in turn sells his product to a grocery wholesaler, his $200 bill goes up to $240, etc. Retail prices are correspondingly high. The French are not able to cheat all the time on the VAT although many try. (Penalties are costly on the one hand, but there exists a complicated, frustrating official scheme to get back part of the VAT you do pay, on the other hand.) I speculate that the VAT is so high because the French state does not have the political will nor the capacity to collect an effective, normal income tax, a progressive income tax. Overall, the French fiscal system is not progressive; it may be unintentionally regressive. To compensate, until the Macron administration, there was a significant tax on wealth. (That’s double taxation, of course.) It’s widely believed that rich French people are escaping to Belgium, Switzerland, and even to Russia (like the actor Gérard Dupardieu).

The excise taxes are especially high, including the tax on gasoline. In 2018, the mean price of gasoline in France was about 60% higher than the mean price in California, where gas is the most taxed in the Union. An increase to gasoline taxes, supposedly in the name of saving the environment, is what triggered the “yellow vests” rebellion in the fall of 2018. Gasoline taxes are particularly regressive in a country like France where many next-to-poor people need a car because they are relegated to small towns, far from both essential services and work. (2)

All in all, the French central government takes in about 55% of the GDP. This may be the highest percentage in the world; it’s very high by any standard. It dries up much money that would otherwise be available to free enterprise. Less obviously but perhaps more significantly, it curtails severely what people individually, especially, low income citizens, may spend freely, of their own initiative.

What’s wrong?

So, with their abundant and competent social services, with their free schooling, with their prodigal unemployment benefits, with their superb roads, with their government-supported prowess in soccer, what do the French people in the documentary really complain about? Two things, I think.

Remember the woman who couldn’t afford to take her coffee in a café? Well, the French have never been very good at clubs, associations, etc. They are also somewhat reserved about inviting others to their homes. The café is where you avail yourself of the small luxury of avoiding cooking chores with an inexpensive but tasty sandwich. It’s pretty much the only place where you can go on the spur of the moment. It’s where you may bump into friends and, into almost-friends who may eventually become friends. It’s the place where you may actually make new friends. It’s the best perch from which to glare at enemies. It’s where that woman may have a chance to overhear slightly ribald comments that will make her smile. (Not yet forbidden in France!) The café is also just about the only locale where different age groups bump into one another. The café is where you will absorb passively some of that human warmth that television has tried for fifty years but failed to dispense.

This is not a frivolous nor a trivial concern. In smaller French towns, a person who does not spend time in cafés is deprived of an implicit but yet significant part of her humanity. The cup of coffee the woman cannot afford in a café may well be the concrete, humble, quotidian expression of liberty for many in other developed countries as well. (After all, Starbucks did not succeed merely by selling overpriced beverages.) The woman in the video cannot go to cafés because the social services she enjoys and supports – on a mandatory basis – leave no financial room for free choice, even about tiny luxuries. She suffers from the consequences of a broad societal pick that no one forced on her. In general, not much was imposed on her from above that she might have readily resisted. It was all done by fairly small, cumulative democratic decisions. In the end, there is just not enough looseness in the socio-economic space she inhabits to induce happiness.

She is an existential victim of what can loosely be called “democratic socialism.” It’s “democratic” because France has all the attributes of a representative republic where the rule of law prevails. It’s “socialistic” in the vague sense in which the term is used in America today. Unfortunately, there is no French Bureau of Missing and Lost Little Joys to assess and remedy her discontent. Democratic socialism is taking care of the woman but it leaves her no elbow room, space for recreation, in the original meaning of the word: “re-creation.”

The second thing participants in the documentary complain about is a sense of abandonment by government. Few of them are old enough to remember the bad old days before the French welfare state was fully established. They have expected to be taken care of all their adult lives. If anything is not satisfactory in their lives, they wait for the government to deal with it, even it takes some street protests. Seldom are other solutions, solutions based on private initiative, even considered. But the fault for their helplessness lies with more than their own passive attitudes. An overwhelming sense of fairness and an exaggerated demand for safety combine with the government’s unceasing quest for revenue to make starting a small business, for example, difficult and expensive. France is a country where you first fill forms for permission to operate, and then pay business taxes before you have even earned any business income.

The French have democratically built for themselves a soft cradle that’s feeling more and more like a lead coffin. It’s not obvious enough of them understand this to reverse the trend, or that they could if they wished to. There is also some vague worry about their ability to maintain the cradle for their children and for their children’s children.

(1) I am aware of the fact that there exists a strong inverse correlation between length of week worked and GDP/capita: In general, the richer the country, the shorter the work week. Again, this is based on a kind of average. It allows for exceptions. It seems to me the French awarded themselves a short work week before they were rich enough to afford it.

(2) You may wonder why I don’t mention the French debt ratio (amount of public debt/GDP). All the amenities I describe must cost a lot of money and the temptation to finance them partly through debt must be great. In fact, the French debt ratio is lower than the American: 96% to 109% in 2018 according to the International Monetary Fund. This is a little surprising but all debtors are not equal. A country with near full employment and plenty of talent is better able to pay off its debts than one with high long term unemployment and a labor force decreasingly accustomed to laboring. The latter is, of course, a predictable result of inter-generational unemployment and underemployment. Nowadays, it’s common to cross paths in France with people over thirty who have never experienced paid work. International investors think like me about the inequality of debtors. Investors flock to the US but they are reserved about France.

[Editor’s note: You can find the entire, longform essay here if you don’t want to wait for Parts II and III.]


  1. Against HIPPster regulation Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. Is the “culture of poverty” functional? Bryan Caplan, EconLog
  3. A sex fiend Jacques Delacroix, NOL
  4. Do we have the historians we deserve? Branko Milanovic, globalinequality

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 14): Immigration and Politics

Left-Wing Immigrants

Immigration is seldom politically neutral. Large-scale immigration as experienced by the wealthy Western countries changes the balance of power between domestic parties.  Immigrants seem to never divide their loyalties evenly between existing parties. And, immigration may indirectly be responsible for the emergence of new, nativistic political parties.

Immigrants to France, nearly always join the French Socialist Party. Immigrants to the UK tend strongly to vote Labor. Immigrants to the US vote overwhelmingly Democratic. The reasons for these tropisms are complex. They may include the possibility that some sort of vaguely defined social democracy is the default preference for a humanity ever so slowly extricating itself from ancestral collectivism. Why else would socialist-sounding noises have still not lost their allure in spite of the many failures, some tragic, associated with the word, in spite also of the manifest success of capitalism in raising millions out of poverty? The dramatic sinking of socialist and oil-rich Venezuela though well documented by the media seems to have made little impression on young Americans, on people reared in the midst the plenty of capitalism. It’s as if a sort of subdued ethnocentrism protected Americans from rational consciousness: They are Latins; of course, we would naturally do better. Immigrants from poorer countries, immigrants from less well informed countries are not likely to resist the lure better than young Americans. (“Not likely,” it’s not completely impossible.)

Market-oriented thought does not come naturally to the many because, with its inherent (and, in Adam Smith, explicit) justification of selfishness, it’s ethically counter-intuitive. It invites us to act exactly contrary to the way our mothers and most of our religions demand. (Take the current Pope, for example….) At any rate, few Americans read Adam Smith, of course. It’s not obvious how much basic economics is taught in high school, or in college. In fact, it’s easy to graduate with honors from a good American university without a single course in economics. Others in the world, with a less vivid personal experience of successful capitalism, read him even less, I suspect. I don’t think I could find a single French adult who has read anything by Smith though some well educated people there have heard of him. (I cast a line on this issue on an active French pro-capitalist Facebook group – Libéraux Go – for a week without a single bite.)

I fear that there is no reservoir of intellectually market-oriented potential immigrants anywhere. Or of immigrants with a potential for market orientation. India will continue sending America leftists who function well individually in a market- oriented society while collectively wishing to bring it down. The most promising regional source of people ready for capitalism is probably the Islamic world. That’s not because many Muslims have a theory of the market but because, sociologically speaking, there is a vigorous merchant tradition in Islam. The fact that the Prophet himself was a merchant, as was his older, educated, mentoring first wife, probably also helps a little. The additional fact that Islam early on provided an explicit ethical framework for entrepreneurship – including lending – probably awards a degree of legitimacy to anything related to capitalism in Muslim countries that is practically lacking in the formerly Christian world, for example. (Please, don’t tell me about Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism! My friend, the late François Nielsen and I destroyed its myth in 2001 – “The beloved myth: Protestantism and  the rise of industrial capitalism in 19th century Europe.” Social Forces 80-2:509-553.)

Perhaps, I am engaging in wishful thinking but, the multiple failures of socialist experiments in Latin America in a person’s lifetime may supply a trickle of pro-capitalism immigrants. (Currently, there is an exodus of middle-class Venezuelans to Florida.) Finally, disenchantment with the unkept promises of high-tax European welfare capitalism may give the USA another source, although the countries concerned are in sharp demographic decline. The first Macron government in France created a new cabin-level post charged with persuading the young elite to not emigrate! I take this as a good sign for the US.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 13]

Minimum wage and length of poverty spells

I had a pre-programmed blog post on the issue of the minimum wage and poverty which was preempted by Mark Koyama (a blogger here at Notes on Liberty). The tweet is below and it has forced me to adjust the post.

Mark is absolutely right! Let me explain why with my own spin on it.

First of all, the demand curve slopes downwards – always. However, the method of adjusting to price changes (wages are a price and the minimum wage is a price control) is not an empirical constant.  I am unlikely to fire workers for a 1% in the inflation-adjusted minimum wage. Firing workers implies transaction costs that are dependent of context (for example, if I am friend with my employee, this is a transaction cost in the form of a lost friendship), firm size (I won’t fire my only employee which represents 50% of my output for a 1% hike in MW) laws (firing and hiring regulations), institutions (social institutions, reputation, norms), my clientele (how elastic is their demand) and technological alternatives. For a 1% increase, I am likely to reduce work hours or cut marginal benefits (no free soup for you). For a 10% increase, I am more likely to consider the option of firing a worker or I may shift to a new technological set that reduces my demand for labor.  It may happen rapidly or take some time, but there will eventually be an adjustment.

In any case, the minimum wage will imply some losses with a deadweight loss. Only the method by which it materializes is debatable.  By definition, some people will be hurt and generally and even if supply is super-elastic (doubtful), some suppliers (workers)  will be ejected from the market (or the quantity of labor they can supply will be ulitmately reduced). Since the minimum wage generally tends to fall on unskilled workers, this must be correlated with workers close to the poverty line.

Ideally, we’d need a measure of the minimum wage to be compared with the “at-risk” population over a long period of time in order to encapsulate all the effects of the minimum wage. The perfect measure is the “length of poverty spell” variable which has been emerging progressively from the BLS. The problem is that it is not broken down by state. Fortunately, Canada has that variable (well, a low-income variable which is a relatie poverty measure) for provinces. Inside the Survey of Labor and Income Dynamics (affectionally known as the SLID), this longitudinal variable has a span of eight years. Basically, we can know if a person has been below the low-income threshold for up to eight years. Let’s take that extreme measure and plot it against the minimum wage divided by the average wage.

As one can see from the scatter plot below, there is a more or less clear relationship between the minimum wage as a share of the average wage and the length of poverty spells. What is more impressive is that this graph is not a regression. More precisely, the provinces with the highest minimum wages (like my own province of Quebec and the province of Nova Scotia) also have the most extensive social welfare nets. Alberta,  a province with the lowest minimum wage ratio and one of the least “generous” social welfare net in Canada, is at the very bottom of the pack in terms of the persistence of poverty.


I think this graph acts in very modest (but clear) support to Mark’s point (which is also the point of Burkhauser, Sabia, MaCurdy and many others)

Peter Singer vs The Poor

I am new at Notes On Liberty, graciously invited by Brandon Christensen. I’ll be blogging about a range of things, some of which will include political philosophy.

I am currently working on a paper on Peter Singer’s famous “Famine, Affluence and Poverty” paper that argues that we have a moral obligation to donate a lot of our current holdings to poor people. His argument is pretty straightforward.

Premise 1: I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.

Premise 2: if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. By “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance” I mean without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent. This principle seems almost as uncontroversial as the last one. It requires us only to prevent what is bad, and to promote what is good, and it requires this of us only when we can do it without sacrificing anything that is, from the moral point of view, comparably important. I could even, as far as the application of my argument to the Bengal emergency is concerned, qualify the point so as to make it: if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.

Example: An application of this principle would be as follows: if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

And therefore, he concludes, there is a strong moral imperative to donate a lot of money to poorer people who are in dire need of assistance.

However, there seems to be something obvious that is overlooked, something that I haven’t encountered in the literature on the topic. Namely, Singer discusses the implications this principle has for rich people, they have to donate a lot of money, because being poor and suffering because of lack of food is bad. However, this principle doesn’t limit itself to creating obligations for those in affluence. It should, ipso facto, also create implications for those in poverty.

Premise 1: Poverty and the suffering it causes is bad. (It seems hard for Singer to disagree with this.)

Premise 2: If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing something of comparable moral worth, we ought, morally, to do it.

Ok, fair enough. But if poverty is bad: why doesn’t this principle create a very strong moral obligation for people in poverty to not get children (and thus putting more people in this situation?) Maybe one could argue that getting children is a great moral good (or that not getting children is a great moral evil), but it seems weird to say that putting people into something that (by implication of Singer’s views) is considered a great moral evil is somehow a good thing.

So if I am right, Singer needs to accept that his views create a strong moral obligation towards poor people not to get children.

Even more so. If this is the case, it follows that everyone every has a strong moral implication not to get children, because we will always be poorer than we’ll collectively be 100 years in the future. (Were the original cave dwellers immoral people for getting children then?)

Maybe one can argue that even though suffering is bad, but on net, a human life is still a good thing. The marginal choice leads us to say ‘we need another life’ (that’s on net good) but when a specific human life is in need, we need to help that life, on that margin, because on that margin, we can still alleviate suffering (which is generating ‘less bad and more good’). The issue with this line of argument seems that it has a very strong assumption that a life is, on net, a good thing. But even ignoring that, it does open the gate towards a comment from the ‘rich people’ to say: ‘well, if those parents don’t have a moral obligation to not get children because on net a human life is still worth living, even if there is some suffering, why do we have an obligation then to help at the point of suffering? The life, on net, was still a good life.’ (This point follows from the assumption that it isn’t unethical for those parents to get children, despite their poverty and the suffering that results from it.)

I invite any and all comments on this issue.

Would a Universal Basic Income Increase Poverty?

Switzerland has recently overwhelming voted against a proposal that would establish a universal income guarantee (sometimes called a “basic income guarantee” or the similar Friedman-influenced “negative income tax”[1]). Though I myself am a supporter of BIG as a nth best policy alternative for pragmatic reasons,[2] I’m unsure if I myself would have voted for this specific policy proposal due to the lack of specifics. A basic income is only as good as the welfare regime surrounding it (which preferably would be very limited) and the tax system that funds it.[3] However, the surprising degree of unpopularity of the proposal—with 76.9% voting against—was quite surprising.

The Swiss vote has renewed debate in the more wonkish press and blogosphere, as well as in think tanks, about the merits and defects of a Basic Income Guarantee here in the States. For example, Robert Goldstein of the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities[4] has a piece arguing that a BIG would increase poverty if implemented as a replacement for the current welfare state. His argument covers three points:

  1. A BIG would be extremely costly to the point of being impossible to fund.
  2. A BIG would increase the poverty rate by replacing current welfare programs like Medicaid and SNAP.
  3. A universal welfare program like a BIG—as opposed to means-tested programs—is politically impossible right now due to its unpopularity.

For this post, I’ll analyze Goldstein’s arguments in detail. Overall, I do not find his arguments against a BIG convincing at all.

The Political Impossibility of a BIG

Goldstein writes:

Some UBI supporters stress that it would be universal.  One often hears that means-tested programs eventually get crushed politically while universal programs do well.  But the evidence doesn’t support that belief.  While cash aid for poor people who aren’t working has fared poorly politically, means-tested programs as a whole have done well.  Recent decades have witnessed large expansions of SNAP, Medicaid, the EITC, and other programs.

If anything, means-tested programs have fared somewhat better than universal programs in the last several decades.  Since 1980, policymakers in Washington and in a number of states have cut unemployment insurance, contributing to a substantial decline in the share of jobless Americans — now below 30 percent — who receive unemployment benefits.  In addition, the 1983 Social Security deal raised the program’s retirement age from 65 to 67, ultimately generating a 14 percent benefit cut for all beneficiaries, regardless of the age at which someone begins drawing benefits.  Meanwhile, means-tested benefits overall have substantially expanded despite periodic attacks from the right.  The most recent expansion occurred in December when policymakers made permanent significant expansions of the EITC and the low-income part of the Child Tax Credit that were due to expire after 2017.

In recent decades, conservatives generally have been more willing to accept expansions of means-tested programs than universal ones, largely due to the substantially lower costs they carry (which means they exert less pressure on total government spending and taxes).

I agree that Goldstein is right on this point: universal welfare programs are extremely unpopular right now, like the Swiss vote shows. I imagine that if a proposal were on the ballot in the States the outcome would be similar.[5] However, this is no argument against a Basic Income. Advocating politically unpopular though morally and economically superior policies is precisely the role academics and think tank wonks like Goldstein should take.

If something is outside the Overton Window of Political Possibilities, it won’t necessarily be so in the future if policymakers can make the case for it effectively to voters and the “second-hand dealer of ideas” in think tanks and academia get their ideas “in the air,” so to speak.[6] It wasn’t that long ago that immigration reform or healthcare reform seemed politically impossible due to its unpopularity, yet the ladder has popular support and the former was actually accomplished.[7]

If anything, the unpopularity of a BIG is precisely why people like Goldstein should advocate for the policy.

The Fiscal Costs of Funding a Basic Income Guarantee

Goldstein points out, rightly, that a Basic Income Guarantee would be extremely expensive:

There are over 300 million Americans today.  Suppose UBI provided everyone with $10,000 a year.  That would cost more than $3 trillion a year — and $30 trillion to $40 trillion over ten years.

This single-year figure equals more than three-fourths of the entire yearly federal budget — and double the entire budget outside Social Security, Medicare, defense, and interest payments.  It’s also equal to close to 100 percent of all tax revenue the federal government collects.

Or, consider UBI that gives everyone $5,000 a year.  That would provide income equal to about two-fifths of the poverty line for an individual (which is a projected $12,700 in 2016) and less than the poverty line for a family of four ($24,800).  But it would cost as much as the entire federal budget outside Social Security, Medicare, defense, and interest payments.

Where would the money to finance such a large expenditure come from?  That it would come mainly or entirely from new taxes isn’t plausible.  We’ll already need substantial new revenues in the coming decades to help keep Social Security and Medicare solvent and avoid large benefit cuts in them.  We’ll need further tax increases to help repair a crumbling infrastructure that will otherwise impede economic growth.  And if we want to create more opportunity and reduce racial and other barriers and inequities, we’ll also need to raise new revenues to invest more in areas like pre-school education, child care, college affordability, and revitalizing segregated inner-city communities.

Of course, Goldstein is right that a BIG would be fairly expensive and we are already having serious issues funding our existing welfare state. However, he grossly oversells the difficulty in funding it. In particular, it is not necessary to raise taxes to pay for it or for current welfare expenditures.

Goldstein likely gets the $10,000 figure from Charles Murray’s proposal for a BIG. Personally, I’m no fan of Murray’s proposal as it goes too far and he proposes financing it by increasing payroll taxes, which are economically inefficient. However, let’s assume that the relevant proposal is around $7,000 dollars.[8] Multiplying that by the US population of 320 million makes for a total cost $2.24 trillion per year.[9] This could be paid for by using the BIG to replace the following current welfare programs and cutting discretionary spending:[10]

  1. $65.32 billion annually in discretionary spending on Veteran’s benefits
  2. $66.03 billion in discretionary spending on Medicare and other healthcare benefits
  3. $69.98 billion in discretionary spending for education.[11]
  4. $13.13 billion in discretionary spending for food and agriculture (eg., SNAP).[12]
  5. $1.25 trillion in mandatory spending for Social Security.[13]
  6. $985.74 billion in mandatory spending for Medicare and Healthcare.
  7. $95.3 billion in mandatory spending for veteran’s benefits.[14]

Spending a UBI Could Replace

That’s a total of $2.542 trillion in savings annually, more than enough to fund the proposed BIG with another $300.3 billion to spare that could be used for tax credits for low-income households to use on healthcare,[15] education,[16] retirement,[17] and/or basic necessities like food.[18] Funding the program would be a huge challenge, but it is possible to do it without tax increases.

Additionally, Goldstein ignores the fact that similar proposals, such as Friedman’s negative income tax, would have a much lower cost while having a similar effect. The Niskanen Center’s Samuel Hammond has estimated that a NIT could cost only $182 billion annually.[19] From Hammond’s analysis:

Just how much of a cost difference is there between a UBI and NIT? To get a rough idea, I used the Census population survey’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement, which has the distribution of individuals over the age of 15 by income level in $2,500 intervals (I subtracted retirees). I then calculated the transfer each quantile would receive based on a hypothetical NIT which starts at $5,000 for individuals with zero income and is phased out at a rate of 30%. Multiplying the average transfer by the number of actual individuals in each grouping and summing, I arrived at total cost of $182 billion—roughly the combined budget for SSI, SNAP and EITC.

The Effect of Replacing Welfare with a BIG on Poverty

Goldstein would object to my line of reasoning by saying cutting all that spending would harm the poor and increase the poverty rate. He says as much in his piece:

UBI’s daunting financing challenges raise fundamental questions about its political feasibility, both now and in coming decades.  Proponents often speak of an emerging left-right coalition to support it.  But consider what UBI’s supporters on the right advocate.  They generally propose UBI as a replacement for the current “welfare state.”  That is, they would finance UBI by eliminating all or most programs for people with low or modest incomes.

….Yet that’s the platform on which the (limited) support for UBI on the right largely rests.  It entails abolishing programs from SNAP (food stamps), which largely eliminated the severe child malnutrition found in parts of the Southern “black belt” and Appalachia in the late 1960s, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Section 8 rental vouchers, Medicaid, Head Start, child care assistance, and many others.  These programs lift tens of millions of people, including millions of children, out of poverty each year and make tens of millions more less poor.

Some UBI proponents may argue that by ending current programs, we’d reap large administrative savings that we could convert into UBI payments.  But that’s mistaken.  For the major means-tested programs — SNAP, Medicaid, the EITC, housing vouchers, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and school meals — administrative costs consume only 1 to 9 percent of program resources, as a CBPP analysis explains.  Their funding goes overwhelmingly to boost the incomes and purchasing power of low-income families.[20]

Moreover, as the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal has noted, eliminating Medicaid, SNAP, the EITC, housing vouchers, and the like would still leave you far short of what’s needed to finance a meaningful UBI.  Would we also end Pell Grants that help low-income students afford college?  Would we terminate support for children in foster care, for mental health, and for job training services?

This is by far and away the weakest part of Goldstein’s argument.

First of all, as my analysis above showed, Konczal’s and Goldstein’s idea that eliminating the current welfare state “would still leave you far short of what’s needed to finance a meaningful UBI” is just false. Even a relatively robust UBI of $7,000 a year is doable by significantly cutting current welfare programs.

But more importantly, Goldstein’s assertion that replacing the welfare state with a UBI would increase poverty is fully unwarranted. He seems to take a ridiculously unsophisticated idea that “more means-tested programs immediately reduce welfare.” His assertion that the programs in question “lift tens of millions of people, including millions of children, out of poverty each year and make tens of millions more less poor” is, at best, completely erroneous. For three reasons: first, individuals know better what they need to lift themselves out of the than the government, and these programs assume the opposite. Second, the structure of status quo means-tested programs often creates a “poverty trap” which incentivizes households to remain below the poverty line. Finally, thanks to these first two theoretical reasons, the empirical evidence on the success of the status-quo programs in terms of reducing the poverty rate is, at best, mixed.

The way our current welfare state is structured is it allocates how much money can go to what basic necessities for welfare recipients. So if a household gets $10,000 in welfare a year, the government mandates that, say, $3,000 goes to food, $3,000 goes to healthcare, $3,000 goes to education, and $1,000 goes to retirement.[21] This essentially assumes that all individuals and households have the same needs; but this is simply not the case, elderly people may need more money for healthcare and less for education, younger people may need the exact opposite, and poorer families with children may need more for food and education than other needs. It’s almost as if our current welfare system assumes interpersonal utility function comparisons are possible, or utility functions of poorer people are fairly homogenous but they’re not. It also ignores the opportunity cost of the funding for helping individuals and households out of funding; a dollar spent on healthcare may be more effectively spent on food for a particular individual or household.

In sum, there’s a knowledge problem involved in our current welfare policy to combat poverty: the government cannot know the needs of impoverished individuals, and such knowledge is largely dispersed, tacit, and possessed by the individuals themselves. The chief merit of a UBI is, rather than telling poor people what they can spend their welfare on, it just gives them the money and lets them spend it as they need.

Second, universal programs are superior to means tested programs precisely because the amount of transfer payments received does not decrease as income increases. Our current welfare programs too often make the marginal cost of earning an additional dollar, above a certain threshold, higher than the benefits because transfer payments are cut-off at that threshold. This actually perversely incentivizes households to remain in poverty.[22] For example, the Illinois Policy Institute while analyzing welfare in Illinois found the following:

A single mom has the most resources available to her family when she works full time at a wage of $8.25 to $12 an hour. Disturbingly, taking a pay increase to $18 an hour can leave her with about one-third fewer total resources (net income and government benefits). In order to make work “pay” again, she would need an hourly wage of $38 to mitigate the impact of lost benefits and higher taxes.


Or consider this chart (shown above) from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare showing the same effect in Pennsylvania

UBI does not suffer from this effect. If your income goes up, you do not lose benefits and so there are no perverse incentives at work here. Ed Dolan has analyzed how the current welfare state with its means-tested benefits is worse in terms of incentivizing work and alleviating poverty extensively. Here’s a slice of his analysis:


The horizontal axis in Figure 1 represents earned income while the vertical axis shows disposable income, that is, earned income plus benefits. To keep things simple, we will assume no income or payroll taxes on earned income—an assumption that I will briefly return to near the end of the post. The dashed 45o line shows that earned and disposable income are the same when there are no taxes or income support. The solid red line shows the relationship between disposable and earned income with the MTIS policy.

This generic MTIS policy has three features:

A minimum guaranteed income, G, that households receive if they have no earned income at all.

A benefit reduction rate (or effective marginal tax rate), t, indicted by the angle between the 45o line and the red MTIS schedule. The fact that t is greater than zero is what we mean when we say that the program is means tested. As the figure is drawn, t = .75, that is, benefits are reduced by 75 cents for each dollar earned.

A break-even income level, beyond which benefits stop. Past that point, earned income equals disposable income.

When these two factors are taken into account (that individuals know better than the government what they need to get out of poverty and there are significant poverty traps in our welfare state), it is no surprised that the empirical evidence on the effectiveness of these anti-poverty programs is far less rosy than Goldstein seem to think.

After reviewing the empirical literature on the relationship between income and welfare improvements for impoverished households, Columbia University’s Jane Waldfogel concluded “we cannot be certain whether and how much child outcomes could be improved by transferring income to low income families.” The Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner wrote in 2006:

Yet, last year, the federal government spent more than $477 billion on some 50 different programs to fight poverty. That amounts to $12,892 for every poor man, woman, and child in this country. And it does not even begin to count welfare spending by state and local governments. For all the talk about Republican budget cuts, spending on these social programs has increased an inflation-adjusted 22 percent since President Bush took office.

Despite this government largesse, 37 million Americans continue to live in poverty. In fact, despite nearly $9 trillion in total welfare spending since Lyndon Johnson declared War on Poverty in 1964, the poverty rate is perilously close to where it was when we began, more than 40 years ago.

Tanner’s point remains true today. The chart below shows that, despite a massive increase in anti-poverty spending since the war on poverty was declared under Johnson’s “Great Society,” Poverty rates have remained woefully stagnant. In fact, the reduction in poverty that was occurring prior to Johnson’s interventions stopped soon thereafter.

US Poverty Spending

Also, the point is that UBI is a replacement for current welfare benefits. Most households probably would not see a decrease in amount of benefits under a UBI, depending on the specifics of the proposal, and some might even see an increase, contrary to Goldstein’s analysis. Further, they’d be able to actually spend this on what they know they need rather than what government bureaucrats thin they need.

UBI lacks the flaws of the current welfare state, and would likely decrease poverty far more effectively than Goldstein thinks, especially when compared to his favored status-quo.

[1] Though there are some technical differences between Milton Friedman’s proposal for a “negative income tax” and most Basic Income Guarantee proposals, they essentially have the same effect on income. See the Adam Smith Institute’s Sam Bowmen on this point.

[2] See Matt Zwolinski for the “Pragmatic Libertarian Case for a Basic Income,” it should be noted that “pragmatic reasons” here does not refer to my pragmatist philosophical views. Zwolinski has also made a moral case for the basic income on Hayekian grounds that a BIG could reduce coercion in labor negations. I am unsure to what extent I am convinced by this line of reasoning, but it is a valid argument nonetheless.

[3] The Niskanen Center’s Samuel Hammond has made the case that universal transfer programs like a Basic Income cannot be analyzed outside of the tax system that pays for it.”

[4] Or, as my think tank buddies jokingly call it, the “Center for Bigger Budgets.”

[5] Having said that, polls have shown that it is popular across the pond in the Eurozone. The Swiss proposal would call into question this point but it could be argued that the vagueness of the Swiss proposal is why it was turned down not necessarily the spirit of it.

[6] My colleague Ty Hicks of Students for Liberty has made this point well. See also Hayek’s “Intellectuals and Socialism.”

[7] Granted, the Affordable Care Act was not really what most on the left or the right wanted in the first place and has been a disaster.

[8] This number is selected because, according to the CBO, $9,000 is the average amount in means-tested welfare benefits per household for 2006. But that’s for households and a BIG discussed here is for individuals, so it is understandable to make a BIG slightly less than the current average. Goldstein would object that this is far below the poverty line, but BIG is not meant to be a replacement for total income on the labor market at all, so it is unclear why this is an objection in the first place.

[9] This is admittedly a crude and naïve calculation but it is virtually identical to the method Goldstein himself uses to estimate the cost.

[10] All figures for this section are for the 2015 budget and are taken from here.

[11] Goldstein is sure not to be happy with cutting education, and I myself would like to replace this spending with few-strings-attached funding for local education or private school tax vouchers. I’ll address this point more later in this piece.

[12] Much of this is food stamps, which would be rendered obsolete by a BIG anyways. Goldstein would object, more on that in the next section.

[13] Not all of this could be cut, and there would be legal and detailed nuances on how to treat financial obligations for Social Security, veteran’s benefits, and Medicare. The specific legal complexities of mandatory welfare spending are not my areas of expertise, admittedly, and is outside the scope of this paper. I’m just illustrating that it is possible to cut at least some of this spending, perhaps even the majority of it, to fund it.

[14] Many people would object to cutting veterans benefits. First of all, BIG could act in place of these benefits

[15] I have in mind expanding tax-exempt Health Savings Accounts here. I also think funding this by eliminating the employer-based deduction would be a step in the right direction and reduce cost fragmentation in the healthcare market, as Milton Freidman argued.

[16] I have in mind a private school taxpayer voucher system like what is in Sweden.

[17] I have in mind something similar to this proposal to reform social security from the Cato Institute.

[18] I have in mind something like the pre-bates proposed in the Fair Tax.

[19] For this reason, I prefer an NIT to a BIG, but I prefer both to our current welfare state.

[20] This point is Ironic considering the fact that CBPP’s own research shows that government benefits in America overwhelmingly goes to households above the poverty line, in the middle and upper classes. See this chart (source):


[21] The real-world numbers are probably different and vary a little bit from household to household, but this is just a hypothetical to illustrate a more general point.

[22] It should be noted, however, that the EITC, and some other programs, is largely free of this defect. This is because the EITC itself is modeled after Friedman’s NIT.

Note: The first chart has been edited since this was initially posted for readability.