Karl Widerquist wants to give you instant cash now!
BY IAN MURPHY
Defeated right-wing lunatics may be crying “SOCIALISM!” but REAL socialism is actually pretty cool. And to prove it, we talked to evil socialist, rocker and PhD of Economics Dr. Karl Widerquist.
Ian Murphy: Give it to us straight, Doc. Will the economy ever dance again?
Karl Widerquist: People are spending way too much time worrying about this recession and recessions in general. A recession is a decline of a few percentage points in our total economic output. Compared to our real economic problems, that is of secondary importance. Even if we had a repeat of the Great Depression, and output declined by 25% our capacity to produce goods for each person would fall back to the level of about 1987. The economy wasn’t that bad in 1987. The important thing is that we make sure everybody has enough food, shelter, clothing, etc. America has had the technical capacity to do that every year of our history and we’ve failed to do it every year, but it has failed to do it every year whether we’re in recession or not. That is our real economic problem. Our failure to do that gets slightly worse during recessions and slightly better during boom years. But there is no excuse for it ever happening. If we managed our economy properly, recessions would cause only a temporary loss in our consumption of luxuries, but they would not begin to threaten anyone’s consumption of necessities.
IM: What is BIG and how will it destroy America’s values?
KW: BIG is the basic income guarantee. The idea is that people’s income doesn’t have to start at zero. It is a government ensured income floor structured so that so that everybody who earns more gets to keep more. That way, everybody has a financial incentive to earn more privately, but nobody has to fear destitution, poverty, or homelessness for any reason. If American values are that people should have an incentive to earn more; everybody should have a chance; and nobody should starve, BIG is in tune with American values. If American values are that we should starve the poor until they become obedient servants of people with money, BIG will destroy those values.
IM: Would Joe the Plumber get it, too?
KW: Yes, and it looks like he’ll need it. His 15 minutes of fame are in the past.
IM: Jane, Jerome and José the Plumbers?
KW: Jane represents women. Yes, they’ll get it. Jose represents immigrants. They’ll get it, at least when they become citizens; perhaps after they’ve worked in this country for a number of years. Who’s Jerome supposed to represent? If he’s a citizen he gets it too.
IM: Who the hell’s going to unclog my toilet?
KW: This question is either a very big coincidence or it’s a reference that reveals you’ve really done your homework about BIG. Back in the early 1970s, a bill for a water-down version of BIG was under discussion in Congress. Supposedly, Senator Russel Long said at that time, if this bill passes, “Who will iron my shirts?” I’ve heard that quote repeated many times, but I’ve never actually seen a reliable source showing where and when he actually said it. So, is your question an extremely astute reference to Russel Long in 1971, or is it just a coincidence? If it’s an intentional reference, do you have a reliable source?
His quote, real or not, shows the dark side of the people who oppose the elimination of poverty because of its effects on “work incentives.” Russell Long was a racist man with a racist constituency. Whites in the south (and most of the rest of the country as well) held most of the good jobs, and they wanted to keep poor blacks in the poorly paid bad jobs. They saw anything that might give blacks the power to say no to subservience as something that might force them to pay blacks decent wages and offer them real opportunities.
The poor in the U.S. as a whole today are multi-ethnic. So, you don’t have to be racist to advocate draconian treatment of the poor. Maybe not everybody who worries about “work incentives” today is thinking that they want to keep people who do the working class jobs desperate so that they can pay low wages to the people who iron shirts, scrub toilets, and serve us our meals in restaurants. But whether or not people are thinking that, giving the poor no other option but to accept any job on offer has that effect.
Incentives are a two-way street. We live in a market system. Business have to pay as little as they can for inputs (like labor) and sell their products for as much as they can. That’s what you have to do to make money and stay in business. Whenever you give poor people more incentives to get jobs, you give the employers of poor people incentives to pay lower wages.
If we want people to do jobs like unclogging toilets or ironing shirts, we should pay them wages to make it worth their while to do these things–even though their next best option is something not as bad as homelessness. BIG doesn’t eliminate workers incentive to work, but it does give them the power to command higher wages. Upper and middle class people talk way too much about the responsibility of the poor to work. They already work extremely hard for very little. We, who consume the labor of the poor, should talk instead about our responsibility to pay them decent wages. If we put the poor in the position where they have to accept anything on offer, the market will not allow employers to pay them good wages. If instead, we ensure that every single American has enough money to meet their basic needs, we still have plenty of luxuries to use as rewards to get people to work. If we want people who do the crap jobs that we don’t want to do to have decent lives, we need to give employers the incentive to pay them good wages. BIG does that. Forcing people into the labor market with the threat of homelessness does not.
IM: In the book What’s Wrong with a Free Lunch?, Philippe Van Parijs wrote that basic income should be given ‘…to those who make no social contribution — who spend their mornings bickering with their partner, surf off Malibu in the afternoon, and smoke pot all night.”
Do you agree with that, and on a scale of 1 to 10 — 1 being “Baked” and 10 being “Gravity Bong” — how high are you right now?
I don’t think you have the wording of that quote exactly right. But the sentiment is right: everybody gets it no matter what. How high can you get off a decaf soymilk latte?
IM: How could we possibly afford to pay for society’s lazy hippies and protect ourselves from the terrorists, too?
KW: We can eliminate poverty and it’s really not expensive. In 1900, average income was only $6,739 (adjusted for inflation into 2008 dollars), and everyone who made that much had adequate shelter, decent food, etc. But in 2000, average income was $46,789–that’s over $146,000 for a family of three. We only need about one-seventh of national income to ensure that the poorest American today lives as well as the average American did in 1900. That leaves the other 85 percent to put towards the luxuries that give people incentive to work and to put towards other “worthy” goals like stationing 70,000 troops in Germany. The elimination of poverty is cheap if we care enough to do it.
IM: What happens when people spend their basic income on crack and lottery tickets?
KW: They get high. They don’t win. They have to wait until next week until they can buy anything else with their basic income. If they do meth, eventually their teeth will fall out. No single policy can solve every problem. BIG cannot end drug addiction and it cannot cure cancer. These problems need their own solutions.
Dr. Widerquist is currently a Visiting Associate Professor of Philosophy Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. He’s also serves on the committee of USBIG.