First, you will die. But even if longevity sciences defeat aging, or Ray Kurzweil figures out how to upload and digitize human consciousness, you still won't make it. The universe will eventually die, too. Everything slumps and crawls towards oblivion, in due time. A 'heat death', physicists say. As the universe expands, it cools. As it cools, new stars will cease to form. Solar systems and entire galaxies will disband as planets are flung from orbit and consumed by larger dying entities. The Earth has 5, maybe 6 billion years until our sun swells into a red giant, boiling the oceans and incinerating what flesh remains. Beyond our sun, our galaxy, the heat death continues. All protons will decay, and the matter that life is built of will disperse. The black holes will evaporate, no new matter will form, and the universe will cool, and cool, until it reaches thermodynamic equilibrium, at which point nothing can happen (since happenings require temperature differentials), and the universe will sit motionless for eternity.
This all being a not-so-unlikely outcome, here's my question: if every building will disappear, if every relationship will end, if every cause will fade, if everything we know, love, do, build, imagine, and desire, if it all gets wiped away in a chilled, motionless silence, what should we do? How should we live? What should we care about?
I don't mean this in that all too familiar, banal sense: is there any meaning in the universe? Do we have a purpose? I mean something more pragmatic. Is there anything we should be doing? Is there any way of living that's prescribed by our cosmic situation? Is there anything that matters enough, in the face of impending annihilation, that we should still, defiantly, orient our lives around it?
One fashionable response is a playful nihilism, embodied in the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut's line: "I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different." It's tempting! Nothing really matters, so you might as well have a good time. Do what you please, and what pleases you.
The existentialists went a step further. Since meaning isn't intrinsic to the universe, but a construct of our own minds, we're all free (or condemned) to create our own meanings, our own stories about what matters. Again, nothing really matters, so we get to decide.
At times, I've inhabited both perspectives. They're fruitful to wrestle with. But as final perspectives, they strike me as wrong, and disastrously consequential. I'll get more into why they're wrong, and why consciousness does actually matter so much that it refutes nihilism later in this essay.
But wrongness aside, these narratives can be toxic, and self-fulfilling. If they ascend to define a culture, you get a rudderless society that erodes its coordination power. You get a society that'll doomscroll itself straight into oblivion, uninterested and mostly incapable of changing course. You get a society that's oblivious to its own potential, and too sclerotic to realize that potential anyway. Instead, it'll anesthetize itself until it's too late, and there really is nothing left to do but fart around until everything burns to a dead, silent crisp.
I'm frightened by how familiar this sounds.
But I'm hopeful, because I believe two conveniently related things: first, for a society to function and evolve in a generally healthy way, citizens need to share, loosely, in some collective idea of something that matters. This cannot be just anything. The thing that matters - whether pleasing God, racial purification, economic growth, enlightenment, freedom, or democracy - steers societies in particular directions, and all directions are not equal. But we're in luck, because my second belief is that the human condition is defined by just such a Good thing that we can all agree matters: the enrichment of consciousness.
Most of this essay will be devoted to elaborating what I mean by "enriching consciousness", but here's the claim I'm ultimately getting at:
So far as humans are concerned, consciousness is the most important thing in the universe, and everything we do should be oriented towards improving it.
By 'consciousness', I mean a particular aspect, what the philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel calls the subjective character of experience, or the what-is-it-like-ness:
"...no matter how the form [of consciousness] may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism...We may call this the subjective character of experience."
Being alive has a distinctive feeling to each of us. Our past experiences, perceptual faculties, genetic inheritances, social and physical environments, and qualities of attention all knit together to produce a holistic sensation of what it is like to be us. In general, similar patterns characterize each of our subjectivities, and yet, no two are identical. We know, for example, the general flavor that defines all plums, and yet, each plum has its own flair.
By 'enrichment' of consciousness, I mean helping it do what it's already been doing for billions of years: evolving what the bio-philosopher Andreas Weber calls experiential depth:
"The only factor of nature that expands is its immaterial dimension, which could be called a depth of experience: the diversity of natural forms and the variety of ways to experience aliveness."
One of the defining through-lines across the history of Earth's evolution has been the deepening of consciousness. The expansion of subjective states available for experience. That holistic sensation of what it is like to be conscious, to experience subjectivity, to exist, is on a remarkable evolutionary trajectory. From prokaryotes to humans, depth of experience may be the most striking axis of differentiation.
With recent developments in computational neuroscience and neural networks, we can even show this increasing experiential depth mathematically. Here's Thomas Metzinger, a leading philosopher of mind (& longtime meditator):
“The mathematical theory of neural networks has revealed the enormous number of possible neuronal configurations in our brains and the vastness of different types of subjective experience. Most of us are completely unaware of the potential and depth of our experiential space…your individuality, the uniqueness of your mental life, has much to do with which trajectory through phenomenal-state space you choose.”
The vastness of potential types of subjective experience available to us (not to mention other systems, like rainforests, or mycelium networks) raises the question of agency. How free and capable are we of steering ourselves through these landscapes of possibility? Or, how determined is our experiential matrix by circumstances beyond our control? If we don't choose our own configurations of subjectivity, who, or what, does?
Today, we're in the curious position of being a frontier product of this increasing experiential depth, as well as a primary obstacle to its continuation.
If we're to get out of our own way and stop impeding the expanding experiential depth of consciousness, we'll need significant collective buy-in to the idea that consciousness is extremely, existentially important. I suggest consciousness goes beyond mere importance; it is, in fact, the most important thing.
Children are born with an intuitive understanding that normative claims about how one ought to live require fundamental reasons. Consider the common scene, where an adult tells a child to do something, and the child responds with a relentless stream of probing questions, ultimately trying to understand why they should do the thing they're being told, for which the adult usually gets exasperated before hitting upon a satisfactory answer that cannot be undermined by yet another question:
Adult: "Do X."
Adult: "Because of Y."
Child: "But why Y?"
Adult: "Because of Z."
Child: "Ok but why Z?"
This isn't nonsensical; the child is looking for the Socratic bottom. She's looking for a reason that isn't arbitrary, that isn't predicated on something else, but has its own spine. If we dig deep enough, I suspect we find that it's always and only enriching consciousness that holds up at the bottom.
Why is it important that kids eat their broccoli? To regularly exercise? To end poverty? To improve education? None of these, I contend, are inherently good. Why should we be healthy? One can live a perfectly long, unhealthy life, as the present state of average American lifespans and diets confirms (albeit yes, with higher odds of losing that life to heart disease, obesity, etc). Health is good because it broadens and nourishes the spectrum of possible experiential states. Health is good for consciousness.
You can run the same exercise for anything. Like poverty. Why is poverty bad? A few superficial answers aside, and we might stumble upon something like "justice". It's unjust that so many live in such poverty, while others right next-door live in such wealth, due to an opaque mix of luck, inheritance, and skill. Or, it's unjust that the wealth of a few is itself predicated upon the poverty of others, and deploys its own power to entrench the dynamics upholding the imbalanced arrangement.
I take these arguments seriously. But why do we recognize poverty as undesirable in the first place? I like Amartya Sen & Martha Nussbaum's capabilities framework, which sees poverty as a deprivation of basic capabilities required to live in ways one has reason to value. But even beneath this - why is deprivation of capabilities bad?
Because, I contend, it's fundamentally a deprivation of the potentiality for better states of consciousness. It's like stuffing a budding plant in a jar too small, leaving its limbs no room to grow. We recognize denying something its inherent capacity to flourish, to develop and unfurl and expand, as bad. Perhaps we understand poverty as a denial of just this. Poverty is bad for the development of consciousness, a constraint on its potentiality, and this is intrinsically bad.
From this perspective, the point of 'progress' is to enrich the environments that contextualize & guide the evolution of consciousness. But of course, as these things go, many argue that the past 400 years have seen just the opposite take place.
Our culture is sliding away from consciousness, increasingly subject to "extrinsic drift", writes the neuroscientist and novelist Erik Hoel. Extrinsic drift is a gliding outwards, away from the interiority of consciousness, away from treating consciousness as a phenomenon that really, fundamentally matters:
"We take the extrinsic perspective on psychology, sociology, biology, technology, even the humanities themselves, forgetting that this perspective gives us, at most, only ever half of the picture. There has been a squeezing out of consciousness from our explanations and considerations of the world. This extrinsic drift obscures individual consciousnesses as important entities worthy of attention."
Drifts have origins; where did ours begin? In Galileo's Error, the philosopher of mind Philip Goff traces the drift back to Galileo. Specifically, his distinction between primary qualities and secondary qualities. With this distinction, Galileo carved reality at the joint between subjective and objective, between consciousness and consensus reality, setting aside the former, giving rise to the scientific method that could explain the latter.
For Galileo, there existed a primordial schism between objective properties like size, shape, location, and motion, and subjective properties like taste, smell, melancholy, and wonder. Subjective things were matters of the human soul, and thus properties interior to the human rather than parts of the external and objectively existing world. In his view, science was to deal with the objectively existing world. By setting aside soul and subjectivity, the remainder of the universe could be captured and explained via the quantitative language of mathematics.
“Just as beauty exists only in the eye of the beholder, so colors, smells, tastes, and sounds exist only in the conscious soul of a human being as she experiences the world. In other words, Galileo transformed the sensory qualities from features of things in the world—such as lemons—into forms of consciousness in the souls of human beings...Galileo...created physical science by setting the sensory qualities outside of its domain of inquiry and placing them in the conscious mind. This was a great success, as it allowed what remained to be captured in the quantitative language of mathematics.”
This read of Galileo's work isn't unique to Goff. In Scientific Objectivity and Its Contexts, the Italian philosopher Evandro Agazzi describes Galileo's carving of reality thusly:
"Among the accidents of physical bodies, Galileo distinguished those that depend on the sensory abilities of the observer (colours, smells, and so on, later called 'secondary qualities'), and are therefore subjective - and thus not 'of physical bodies' - from those that are intrinsic to the body (the quantifiable and mathematisable qualities, later called 'primary qualities'), which he calls, for this reason, real accidents. It is only with these real accidents that natural science is concerned, and it can be so concerned efficaciously by adopting mathematics as a means for describing them, thanks to measurement."
In Galileo's 17th century, separating matters of the soul from science may not have seemed terribly consequential. The church, which at least professed to deal with matters of the soul, was still perhaps the most prominent social institution around. But as the scientific method propelled society into its modern form, and the church declined, we developed evermore sophisticated ways of manipulating and describing the objective world, while subjectivity was left where Galileo severed it. What we've come to understand as 'progress' has grown untethered from consciousness. We take the extrinsic perspective simply because we've let the alternative atrophy, like a muscle gone limp.
And if we continue in this groove, where might we end up? One haunting possibility, described by the philosopher Nick Bostrom: if you ignore consciousness long enough, it simply goes away. You get a "Disneyland with no children". A wonderfully advanced, efficient, (automated and algorithmic) productive society where the inefficiencies of subjectivity have been so thoroughly neglected, and have atrophied so deeply, that there's 'no one there', no one left to experience the industrious wonders to which consciousness was sacrificed:
"We could thus imagine, as an extreme case, a technologically highly advanced society, containing many complex structures, some of them far more intricate and intelligent than anything that exists on the planet today – a society which nevertheless lacks any type of being that is conscious or whose welfare has moral significance. In a sense, this would be an uninhabited society. It would be a society of economic miracles and technological awesomeness, with nobody there to benefit. A Disneyland with no children."
Scott Alexander comments: "The last value we have to sacrifice [to this cold notion of 'progress'] is being anything at all, having the lights on inside. With sufficient technology we will be 'able' to give up even the final spark."
Without consciousness, there is nothing left. Only, as Hoel writes, "a sign in the desert that seems to be pointing nowhere until its flickering neon lettering is read: There is something it is like to be a human being. And what it is like matters. The sign points to what cannot be seen."
It matters more than anything else in the universe, so far as we're concerned.
Enlightenment style rationality, the industrial revolution, digital computing - these hallmarks of modernity have enabled immeasurable good. But they have also functioned as a collective of blacksmiths huddled around an anvil, the raw material of consciousness resting on top, each taking their turn crashing their hammers down onto it, smashing their tools onto consciousness, a rhythmic molding process ongoing for centuries now. What shape is emerging? What sorts of blacksmiths are these?
Bostrom and Alexander fear there is no shape emerging, but simply a flattening of consciousness out of existence, compressing the interior space, smaller and smaller, leaving less space for the intrinsic perspective to inhabit, like a moth stuck in a shrinking jar on the classroom shelf, having to progressively fold its wings until they can no longer extend, until they forget they could ever extend, until one day, there may be no intrinsic perspective left, a perfectly flat subjectivity with no interior, a window onto the world with no one looking out, an empty perspective, a moth who's forgotten it ever had wings.
Against such flattening, we could reframe progress as the enrichment of the environments - physical, social, mental - that produce consciousness. "Enrichment" can be understood as increasing both the experiential depth of potential subjective experiences, and increasing people's agency in being the steward of their own path through these expanding depths.
Experiential depth and agency become the twin-pillars of a framework for what I'll describe as a consciousness ethics.
The phrase, 'consciousness ethics', comes from Metzinger's work. Motivated by significant increases in our capacity to change our states of consciousness - via obvious means, like psychedelics, nootropics, or gene editing, but also less obvious means, like the consciousness-altering effects of new technologies, global communication platforms, the attention economy, and so on - Metzinger urges us to begin wrangling a deceptively simple question: What is a good state of consciousness?
He offers a preliminary sketch, an intuition, of three conditions that a 'good' state of consciousness should satisfy:
Above, I reiterated my own axioms. A consciousness ethics should seek to:
These two sets of axioms can melt into each other. The 'point' of increasing agency is to allow subjects greater capacity to minimize suffering, or, if they so choose, to undertake voluntary suffering in pursuit of some larger payoff, which they should be free to do. Additionally, suffering and agency are generally at odds with each other. To cause another subject suffering is to reduce their agency. We can thus see minimizing suffering as a subset of increasing agency.
Increasing "epistemic potential" is also related to experiential depth. In the next section, I'll describe experiential depth as the diversity of ways we might experience any given moment of consciousness. Expanding experiential depth is to expand the possibility space of how we might experience anything at all. I would then argue that the 'point of expanding knowledge' is to expand precisely this possibility space for consciousness, given the condition of minimizing suffering/increasing agency.
This leaves Metzinger's third axiom, which comes down to sustainability. A good state of consciousness should foster behaviors that don't foreclose on the sustained emergence of good states of consciousness in the future. Sustainability is a prerequisite for expanding depth or increasing agency. If consciousness dies out, so does our capacity to develop along these trajectories. This doesn't only apply to climate sustainability, but it's a good example. If we decimate the earth's biospheres, kneecap its biodiversity, and render much of its land uninhabitable, this would wreak havoc on the possibility landscape for the types of consciousness that arise.
Melting Metzinger's suffering axiom into agency, and expanding knowledge into experiential depth, simply adding his third axiom provides a nice synthesis, a rough framework for a consciousness ethics:
With this crude sketch, we can dig deeper into what some of this this stuff means.
I. We should act so as to increase the depth of potential conscious states
Recall Andreas Weber's definition of experiential depth: "the diversity of natural forms and the variety of ways to experience aliveness." This is nice, but poetic. I'd like to attempt greater analytical formalism to Weber's claim. What is experiential depth, and what does it mean to increase it?
Parsing Weber's definition a bit, experiential depth is the capacity to experience consciousness in different ways. The more depth, the greater the variety of states of consciousness, of phenomenologies, available to an experiencing subject.
Depth thus refers to a set of possibilities, rather than any particular realized possibility. There isn't one type of experience indicative of depth - depth comes into view when we survey the range of possible experiences.
Consider a squirrel confronted by a distinct set of stimuli, like a firework show crackling directly above. What is the range of qualia - loosely meaning subjective experiences - available to the squirrel? Most likely, squirrels will always feel the same way: alert and fearful. But humans have a much larger range of potential qualia available when confronted with the same fireworks. Some may marvel at the beauty of the kaleidoscopic colors. Others may feel frustration at the sharp sounds, or joy over the communal affair of a family sitting together on a blanket, watching the show. Some may, like the squirrel, feel fear at the sharp sounds.
The difference between squirrels and humans doesn't require deep elaboration. But experiential depth varies between humans, too, albeit at smaller scales of difference.
Consider an anecdote from the writer and broadcaster Danny Baker, describing a moment of absorption:
"...I pick up sister Sharon’s teeny pink and white Sanyo transistor radio and switched it on. I looked up at the clear blue afternoon sky. Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” was playing and a sort of rapturous trance descended on me. From the limitless blue sky I looked down into the churning, crystal-peaked wake our boat was creating as we motored along, and at that moment, “River Deep” gave way to my absolute favourite song of the period: “Bus Stop” by the Hollies. As the mock flamenco guitar flourish that marks its beginning rose above the deep burble of the Constellation ’s engine, I stared into the tumbling waters and said aloud, but to myself, “This is happening now. THIS is happening now.”
We may not all love mock flamenco guitar, but we might all understand the gist of this experience. The cultural theorist Mark Fisher describes the phenomenology of this absorption as a sense of "exorbitant sufficiency".
Accessing states of consciousness like this exorbitant sufficiency requires more than just the right music. They require the depth and flexibility of consciousness that enables such transitions in the first place. It's easy to imagine that a squirrel lacks the requisite depth to feel what Baker felt while listening to his sister's transistor radio and staring into the churning water tailing his boat's engine. But similarly, I've explored elsewhere how variations in economic conditions can lead to variations in the kind of cognitive flexibility that affords such moments of deep absorption in the first place.
Overworked, sleep-deprived, stressed out workers face, on aggregate, greater cognitive rigidity than those who live with greater assurance of their economic wellbeing. This isn't to say that no one living in poverty can experience rapture. I've lived in India, I know it's possible. But it is to say that on the whole, poverty, or more precisely, the felt-sense of acute economic precarity, engenders cognitive rigidities that reduce our capacity to exercise agency over our states of consciousness, including the flexibility to enter into alternate modes, like exorbitant sufficiency.
Experiential depth, then, differs across all sentient beings. It is the range of potential qualia, the quantum wave of phenomenological probabilities. It's modulated by just about everything - nature and nurture, genetics and biology, lived experience and circumstances, economic conditions, media technologies, diet, and so on.
But this is all still somewhat vague. To make things more concrete, we can explore four proxies that provide imperfect, but helpful formalizations of what experiential depth is.
A note about proxies. None of these strike me as correct ways of proxying experiential depth. Neither is Gross Domestic Product (GDP) a correct way of understanding the health of the economy, nor CO2 emissions a perfect way of understanding climate change. But, if each is taken with their limitations in mind, they afford useful ways of seeing part of what's going on. Maps provide information about the territory, so long as we remember that maps are necessarily imperfect.
Encephalization Quotient (EQ)
EQ is a frustratingly chewy way of saying brain size relative to expected brain size, given body mass. Brain size tends to increase as body mass increases. But we've mostly thrown away the idea that absolute brain size is a useful indication of intelligence.
Instead, we developed average measures of expected brain size for different body sizes. The larger a particular brain's positive deviation from its expected size, roughly, the more intelligent we assume that brain to be.
Moving up the phylogenetic tree from slime molds to humans, cognitive capacity seems clearly linked to EQ. As a proxy for experiential depth, we would make the assumption that EQ is similarly linked to depth. The greater the EQ, the greater the repertoire of potential qualia.
While EQ is concerned with brain mass, connectomes are maps of the brain concerned with the density of neural connections. Perhaps it isn't so much the size of a brain, as the density and complexity of its wiring that can tell us useful information about experiential depth.
However, researchers are uncertain whether more complex neural connections are associated with higher intelligence. Some research finds intelligence is positively associated with neural complexity, while other research finds the opposite.
This one needs a little more explanation, but also gets closer to a more interesting proxy. Counterfactuals are the brain's imaginative capacity. They are imaginations of things other than actually-occurring reality. Counterfactuals can occur for any time horizon. The map of counterfactuals I might imagine for the next 5 seconds is relatively constrained. I might imagine myself standing instead of sitting, or raising my right arm, or calling out for my cat. If we expand the time horizon to 5 days, the range of counterfactuals I might imagine expands. I might be in Croatia. Or have read 2 books. Or have built a table.
You can map out this 'counterfactual tree', and see that the tree of counterfactuals expands with the time horizon (ignore the meditative depth on the right):
Counterfactuals are at the heart of the predictive processing view of the brain/mind. Our brains generate internal models of the world in order to plan, predict, and aid survival. The greater the counterfactual depth, the greater the number of imagined worlds we use in this process.
It's possible to consider counterfactual depth (the time horizon of counterfactualizing) as, itself, a proxy for experiential depth. In a way, it's obvious. The more imagined worlds I hold in mind, the greater the range of internal 'happenings'.
That being said, there's something off about making this conflation between depth and counterfactuals.
Counterfactual depth basically means I have a flurry of abstracted concepts concocted by my brain all superimposed upon each other. Thoughts layered upon thoughts; words layered upon words; abstraction layered upon abstraction. Pitch this to a Buddhist, and they'd say you're moving in the wrong direction.
Layered abstractions increasingly separate one from the depths of insight Buddhist meditation traditionally holds dear. Depths can be taken almost literally here, as insight is said to lie beneath the mind's habitual abstractions. Boundless experiential depth, tradition tells, is a primordial condition of the mind that gets obscured by homo sapiens' acquired habits of predictive processing. Suffering is an emergent property of abstraction. The cessation of abstraction is the cessation of suffering.
Why, then, would we use a measure of abstractions as a proxy for a positive ideal, like experiential depth? Aren't these opposing forces?
In fact, we can discern a very important difference between counterfactual depth and experiential depth. The entire array of counterfactually modeled worlds may still all be built upon the same patterns of phenomenology. If I have acute anxiety, I might counterfactualize 1,000 different worlds, and built into each of them is the same pattern or structure of feeling, the same 'way' of experiencing aliveness.
There is little experiential depth to a counterfactual tree with 1,000 branches cut of the same phenomenological cloth. This is only one degree of depth, containing the same mental habits and patterns that suffuse the same qualities into any and all imagined states of consciousness.
But counterfactual depth is not all forsaken as a useful proxy. We just need to be more specific. What we really want is counterfactual flexibility. We want a blooming tree loaded with counterfactuals, containing a diversity of potential ways of experiencing aliveness. We want the capacity to internally model not only different worlds, but different ways of feeling in these worlds, such that we may actually have a choice between them. When I face fireworks, I want the capacity to choose between marvel or frustration.
Experiential depth, through the lens of counterfactual flexibility, is the capacity of our predictive minds to include different qualia, different phenomenologies as part of the set of possible worlds we can imagine.
Perturbation Complexity Index (PCI)
PCI is among the first empirical measures that endeavors to gauge the 'level' of consciousness in a subject. Basically, you zap a small pulse through the brain, keep track of its travels via EEG, and afterwards run a compression algorithm that tells you how simple or complex its route was. Sort of like mapping the complexity of a pinball's course as it's bounced around the machine.
The more complex the pulse's travels, the higher the level of consciousness in the brain. As explained by Enzo Tagliazucchi, director of the Consciousness, Culture, and Complexity Lab, the complexity of a the pulse's travels can tell us about the richness - or dullness - of the possible states available to that cognitive system:
"...a perturbation of a system which has a small repertoire of possible states will result in a rather dull exploration of its (few) possible states, whereas a system rich with possible states will result in a more interesting and informative exploration. The first case will be associated with low complexity (low PCI), the second with high complexity (high PCI)..."
It's difficult to know much about what a "system rich with possible states" really means. It may fall just as far from being a good proxy for experiential depth as counterfactual depth, if a system is rich with possible states that all support the same phenomenology, the same flavor of qualia.
One of PCI's main virtues is being an "objective measure of consciousness that is independent of the subject's ability to interact with the external environment." And yet, this virtue makes it unclear whether PCI is useful in understanding a subject's experiential depth. Still, until we develop better measures, PCI offers a useful step in beginning the project.
But experiential depth isn't worth much if we don't have the agency to steer ourselves through it. What good is being able to counterfactualize about a wide array of potential ways of feeling aliveness, if we can't actually act upon that array, and choose the states of consciousness we'd like to have? It's a peculiar form of torture to show someone a delicious breakfast buffet, while they're locked into eating the same meal, being steered by forces beyond their control, merely able to view the possibilities that they're incapable of realizing.
This is why the second axiom, agency, is so important. Without it, experiential depth is torture. But together, expanding depth while increasing agency provides a powerful recipe for a meaningful kind of 'progress', a real sort of freedom.
In this spirit, let's now turn to agency.
II. We should act so as to increase the agency subjects have in navigating the expanding subjective state-space
At its core, agency may simply mean the freedom to choose.
But this is the sort of vague rhetoric that everybody can agree with, since it means absolutely nothing in practice. Conservative followers of Milton Friedman and democratic socialists in the lineage of Eugene Debs alike could agree that the freedom to choose - agency - should be a foundational ideal. But they would likely agree on nothing else, least of all how it should be pursued in practice.
So let's zoom in, and study agency at three different scales: cognitive, biological, and social. Each provides related, but distinct, ways of understanding what agency is, and how it might be achieved. As with experiential depth, a flurry of different vantage points may help create a more robust understanding of an otherwise nebulous thing.
Cognitive agency is perhaps the most familiar scale, confining the question of agency to our own minds, to agency as we each experience it. But a growing chorus of cognitive scientists are now telling us, at least on one level, that cognitive agency is an illusion. The sense of agency, the feeling that we are the doer of our actions, the thinker of our thoughts, that it is 'I' who conducts my organism - this sensation is a misleading byproduct of the predictive mind.
And yet, there may yet be a capacity, a set of skills, that may rightfully be called agency at the mental level. Thomas Metzinger calls this mental autonomy.
Sense of Agency
What causes things to happen? Why might I decide to reach for a glass of water, or stand on a nearby bench and shriek the words of Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl? According to the Predictive Processing framework, the brain is constantly generating predictive models about the world. These models enable planning and prediction. They're quite handy for aiding survival. But when the brain imagines future events, it confronts this very question: what causes things to happen?
In order to imagine future events, the brain must model causality. A handy way of doing so is to imagine that 'I' am a coherent thing, a self, who decides to shriek a poem, or raise a water glass, even if no such substantial entity as a self exists.
Returning to Laukkonen & Slagter's paper, they write:
"...possessing a self-model is a natural consequence of active inference and prospection: One cannot predict the sensory outcomes of future actions without representing oneself in those actions as a hidden cause of changes in sensory input. For example, picking up a glass of water requires that we have a model of our body as an intentional agent who can pick up a glass of water. And indeed, we must have a model for the fact that we are an agent that needs such a thing as water."
But this sense of agency, Thomas Metzinger writes, is a "brilliant and parsimonious causal story, even if it's false...Empirically speaking, the self-as-agent is just a useful fiction or hypothesis, a neurocomputational artefact of our evolved self-models."
Cognitive agency, then, should not be conflated with the feeling that we are the cause of our actions. This would be like tethering a normative principle to a ghost. As James Moore (2016) writes, "...the brain appears to actively construct the sense of agency, and because of this, our experiences of agency can be quite divorced from the facts of agency."
What, then, are the real, non-illusory facts of agency, in cognitive terms?
Returning to Metzinger: although the sense of agency is a "surface phenomenon, produced by the fact that the underwater, unconscious causal precursors are simply unknown to us", there still may be "other ways for the organism as a whole to shape what happens in its mental life."
Metzinger lists a series of agentive capacities that may yet improve our 'freedom to choose' our varieties of consciousness. These include:
Together, these capacities make up what Metzinger calls mental autonomy. Mental autonomy is a second-order capacity that acts upon the first-order contents of consciousness. As Krzysztof Dołęga puts it: "Mental agency...is a second-order representational faculty which takes first-order mental processes as its objects."
A good way to illustrate mental autonomy is to point out an example of when we lose it: daydreaming.
A daydream simply happens to you. An event in which you 'lose yourself'. You've lost veto control over your ongoing mental processes, and no longer have agency over guiding the flow of thoughts or the focus of attention. This loss of mental autonomy is not the end of second-order modulation over first-order mental content. Rather, it's a temporary loss of the knowledge that you possess the active ability to exercise mental autonomy. Second-order modulation goes on auto-pilot, but you aren't aware that it's done so. Until, that is, you 'come to'.
Mental autonomy is both a (fragile) type of knowledge that gets bundled (represented) into our self-models, and a trainable skill that one can exercise over their own consciousness.
Mental autonomy is a value that Metzinger holds dear. He writes, as "a working concept, mental autonomy is an excellent new candidate for a basic value that could guide us in education, policymaking and ethics." For his part, he urges that meditation be taught in schools, integrated as a core part of public curriculums. What could be more valuable than training the capacity to exercise agency over one's own consciousness, especially amidst an increasingly frenetic world that exerts its own control over consciousness, rarely in line with values worthy of our potential?
But Metzinger is clear that mental autonomy is not solely a matter of individual responsibility and practice. It's a socially constructed and sculpted phenomenon. Designing social institutions that enhance mental autonomy is a "neglected duty of care on the part of governments":
"What is clear by now is that our societies lack systematic and institutionalised ways of enhancing citizens’ mental autonomy. This is a neglected duty of care on the part of governments. There can be no politically mature citizens without a sufficient degree of mental autonomy, but society as a whole does not act to protect or increase it. Yet, it might be the most precious resource of all. In the end, and in the face of serious existential risks posed by environmental degradation and advanced capitalism, we must understand that citizens’ collective level of mental autonomy will be the decisive factor."
Elsewhere, I've written about the role economics might play in revamping a social commitment to mental autonomy. In practice, this may mean anything from policies like basic income and universal healthcare, to the democratization of companies and national assets. Connecting cognitive capacities like mental autonomy with specific policy proposals will require widespread debate, but there's isn't a moment to lose.
But if we're to move beyond individualized notions of agency, it may do us well to explore conceptions of agency that also move beyond the individual. How might we think about agency not in terms of an individual human mind, but all living systems, at any scale?
Biological Agency: Cognitive Horizons
Mental autonomy is a useful concept for judging the agency of a single organism, like an ant. Ants, relative to humans, don't have much mental autonomy. They don't likely have veto control over mental processes, or the ability to impose rules on their own mental behavior, or to actively control the focus of attention.
Clearly, ant colonies have significantly greater agency than a single ant. But as an evaluative concept, mental autonomy is rather blind to this sort of rise in agency. Neither, I suspect, can an ant colony exercise veto control, or actively guide the focus of attention, or impose rules on mental behavior. But ant colonies exhibit all sorts of astoundingly complex, coordinated behaviors that suggest a meaningful rise in agency of the system, seen as a whole. Ants participate in specific divisions of labor, can build rafts to float atop flooding, communicate about where to find food, disseminate warnings of attacks on the colony, and even farm other species to collect honeydew in the same way we farm cows for milk.
To make sense of this variety of agency, we can use a concept developed by the biologist Michael Levin and philosopher Daniel Dennett: cognitive horizons.
We can categorize and compare a living system's agency by mapping its cognitive horizon, the spatiotemporal dimensions of the goals it can represent and work towards:
"Call this the system’s cognitive horizon. One way to categorise and compare cognitive systems, whether artificial or evolved, simple or complex, is by mapping the size and shape of the goals it can support (represent and work toward). Each agent’s mind comprises a kind of shape in a virtual space of possible past and future events. The spatial extent of this shape is determined by how far away the agent can sense and exert actions – does it know, and act to control, events within 1 cm distance, or metres, or miles away? The temporal dimension is set by how far back it can remember, and how far forward it can anticipate – can it work towards things that will happen minutes from now, days from now, or decades from now?"
Behaviors like farming other species for food indicate a lengthened temporal dimension of the colony relative to an individual ant, while disseminating pheromones that warn against an attack, or locating faraway food treasures, indicate a colony coordinates behavior across much greater spatial distances than any single ant. It has a greater cognitive horizon.
A consciousness ethic compels us to increase agency. If we understand agency in terms of cognitive horizons, how might we do so? Metzinger saw mental autonomy both as a skill that can be trained by individual practice, and a capacity fostered by social institutions. To uncover a similar framework for increasing cognitive horizons, we can look back to an already established formula, the one used by evolution for thousands of years. Levin:
"The key dynamic that evolution discovered is a special kind of communication allowing privileged access of agents to the same information pool, which in turn made it possible to scale selves. This kickstarted the continuum of increasing agency."
The evolutionary algorithm for increasing cognitive horizons is connecting agents via shared information pools, which scales up selves. In this sense, a 'self' may be thought of as a sort of superorganism, wherein the borders separating distinct agendas of a multitude of smaller selves within a shared environment are erased. What remains is a collection of self-interested micro-systems, whose self-interests have all merged into one. A self is a local unity of perfect incentive alignment.
At the cellular level, evolution brings this alignment about by establishing bridges, connexin proteins, that allow "two neighboring cells to directly connect their internal milieus via a kind of tunnel through which small molecules can go." This bridge allows for the bidirectional flow of ions and signaling molecules. Molecules traverse the bridge so fast that for all intents and purposes, whatever happens to one cell now happens immediately to the other. Any incentive that may have existed for one cell to act against the interest of another is erased by their connexin bridge.
The incentive landscape is transformed, not by eliminating self-interest, but by merging and scaling it upwards. Perfect cooperation becomes the rationally self-interested option, and agency now has a larger, more capable system to work with. "The combined network of many cells", Levin & Dennett write, "has hugely more computational capacity than the sum of individual cells' abilities."
"Crucially, this merging implements a kind of immediate ‘karma’: whatever happens to one side of the compound agent, good or bad, rapidly affects the other side. Under these conditions, one side can’t fool the other or ignore its messages, and it’s absolutely maladaptive for one side to do anything bad to the other because they now share the slings and fortunes of life. Perfect cooperation is ensured by the impossibility of cheating and erasure of boundaries between the agents. The key here is that cooperation doesn’t require any decrease of selfishness. The agents are just as 100 per cent selfish as before; agents always look out for Number One, but the boundaries of Number One, the self that they defend at all costs, have radically expanded – perhaps to an entire tissue or organ scale."
But now, how might we scale this framework up, using it to ask questions of human agency, rather than cellular? It's clear enough how the cognitive horizon of a single cell differs from the collective that is a human body. But how might we consider cognitive horizon differentials between humans?
Recall the definition of a cognitive horizon: the spatiotemporal dimensions of a living system's goals. The spatial dimension is determined by the distance at which the agent can sense and exert actions; 1 cm away? 1 mile? 1 galaxy? The temporal dimension is given by how far back into the past the agent can remember, and how far into the future its goals reach.
Cognitive horizons are, essentially, counterfactual trees. The more temporally thick (i.e., the farther out into the future) the tree of counterfactual imagination, the deeper into the future the goals can reach.
Using this association, we can decompose "increasing" agency into two categories: expanding, and improving.
A quick elaboration of each.
I. We can increase cognitive horizons by making near-term goals easier to satisfy, allowing attention to move up the counterfactual tree, into deeper time horizons.
It's difficult to save for retirement if you can hardly afford rent, or groceries for the week's dinner. It's difficult to align your behaviors with the well-being of future generations, if the well-being of your own is under constant threat.
We could say that goal-oriented, agentive thinking follows a similar principle as Maslow's hierarchy of needs. A good way to facilitate climbing the pyramid is to satisfy a basic threshold of each underlying level. Similarly, an effective way to induce longer-term agentive thinking is to make shorter-term goals easier to satisfy. The less energy expended on lower levels, the more energy available for higher, longer temporal plans of agency.
But "short-term goals" are a broad category. What kinds of goals should we focus on making easier to satisfy, if our aim is increase the temporal depth of goal representation?
Put differently, if we're trying to free up the predictive mind, we should focus on goals given the highest precision weighting - the highest importance - within that system. This is a project I'd love an expert to take up, or explain to me: a ranked hierarchy of the relative importance of different kinds of experience, or qualia, as determined by precision weighting within predictive cognition.
Fortunately, I'm aware of at least one starting point. A concept Metzinger calls functional rigidity.
In Being No One, Metzinger defines functional rigidity as a trait of certain classes of conscious experience, mostly related to basic survival. If you are starving, fearful, or otherwise insecure in your basic livelihood, these 'contents of consciousness' will be more difficult to exert mental autonomy over than less-survival centric contents. They're more rigid features of consciousness. I can decide to think about an elephant rather than a cat, but I cannot so easily decide to cease thinking about my inability to feed my family, or secure the roof over our heads.
So, one way to increase the temporal dimension of a citizenry's cognitive horizon is to reduce the difficulties associated with meeting these basic - dare I say, economic - needs.
II. Improving the adaptive value of counterfactual thinking by loosening predictive biases and increasing flexibility
If cognitive horizons are powered by counterfactual processing, they are subject to the same hazards. As is well established, cognitive biases constrain counterfactual thinking, trapping cognition in habitual loops that may be less than helpful.
Cognitive biases are thus a constraint, not on the temporal dimension of cognitive horizons, but on their flexibility, richness, and range. If short-term goal satisfaction helps extend the length of the counterfactual tree, reducing cognitive biases helps extend its width. For any given temporal cross-section, we can imagine more possibilities, as cognition is less constrained by acquired habits.
Laukkonen & Slagter study meditation as a direct intervention, 'pruning the counterfactual tree' by down-regulating the importance ascribed to arising predictions. This affords a less involved relationship with our habitual predictions that arise first, allowing us to patiently attend to predictions other than these first-responders.
"...we propose that meditation may increase the counterfactual richness of processing outside of formal meditation by weakening ingrained prediction loops during meditation. The broadscale loosening of beliefs may permit more flexible and multidimensional processing...In general, meditators should experience less habitual grasping onto passing experience i.e., they should display a decrease of salience and stickiness of arising predictions."
Psychedelics are believed to function in similar - though not identical - fashion. Psychedelics reduce the precision-weighting (read: importance) ascribed to high-level priors, or unconscious assumptions about how the world works, and how we should habitually behave within it. By loosening these high-level constraints on predictive processing, we experience a widened spectrum of possible states.
Meditation and psychedelic offer two potential strategies, but they're by no means the only ones. The broader question: what spectrum of strategies are available to us in the project of reducing cognitive biases, so as to expand our cognitive horizons?
Mental autonomy provides a picture of agency at the level of an individual mind; cognitive horizons provide a picture of agency at the level of all living systems; what remains is to examine agency at the level of social systems.
In sociology, agency is often contrasted with structure. Agency is an individual's capacity to make free choices, independent of structural forces (class, religion, gender, ethnicity, customs, abilities, etc.). There's broad agreement that agency is this freedom to choose, but very little agreement as to what the necessary conditions are for a choice to be rightfully considered free.
Market economies are premised on this notion of voluntary exchange. Sellers are free to set their own prices, buyers are free to accept or reject. Any successful transaction implies that both parties felt it was in their interest to accept the given terms. No one forces you to buy bread, or pay rent - these are decisions you freely make in the marketplace.
It's no exaggeration to say the entirety of orthodox economics is built on this imputed notion of free choice. Here are the opening two sentences from Wikipedia's entry on voluntary exchange:
"Voluntary exchange is a fundamental assumption made by neoclassical economics which forms the basis of contemporary mainstream economics. That is, when neoclassical economists theorize about the world, they assume voluntary exchange is taking place."
At least since Karl Marx (if not Rousseau before him), heterodox economists have critiqued the idea that market transactions occur within adequate conditions to ensure that all such decisions are meaningfully voluntary.
At one extreme, such a 'voluntary transaction' is about as voluntary as forcing a wrongfully convicted inmate to choose between lethal injection or firing squad. Given a closed set of options all of which share an undesirable premise, the convict may choose. But the resultant choice fails to convey the convict's preferences for options that lie outside the closed terms of the decision. As Joseph Heller puts it in Catch-22:
"[Milo Minderbinder] raised the price of food in his mess halls so high that all officers and enlisted men had to turn over all their pay to him in order to eat. Their alternative, there was an alternative, of course—since Milo detested coercion, and was a vocal champion of freedom of choice—was to starve."
If the price system in a market economy is said to convey information about people's preferences, it remains blind to preferences that lie outside the boundaries of given economic conditions. Such a price system is incapable of conveying preferences that reject the system's parameters, since in the end, everyone must accept some market offering through which they pay rent and buy groceries. Or, they could always just starve.
Political philosopher Karl Widerquist writes that truly voluntary decision-making requires an exit option, "a reasonable alternative to participation in the projects of others." Before private property enclosed all the Earth's land, it may have been reasonable to reject all existing market offers, and instead settle one's own land, grow one's own food, and provision for one's own life, without entering into labor contracts. Today, there is no land left to settle (space notwithstanding). Reasonable alternatives to accepting one of the labor contracts on the market are hard to come by.
Widerquist concludes that a basic income guarantee is the optimal way of provisioning a real exit option to all members of society, and thus shoring up the foundations of the market economy. Unconditionally providing every citizen with access to enough resources that they may meet their basic needs, no matter what decisions are made, or left unmade, in the marketplace.
Where Metzinger's mental autonomy made a vague reference to social institutions, social agency, in present civilizational conditions, explicitly requires economic institutions to foster and uphold agency. There's much room for debate to be had over the best methods for provisioning these 'means of agency'. One may prefer a system of basic services over basic income, more localized schemes of community provision, a job guarantee (though I don't believe a job guarantee satisfies the condition of offering a true exit option. One must still assent to the job being offered, or starve), or a number of other possibilities.
But I don't think Widerquist's exit option goes far enough. Social agency is not a binary feature to be checked off with a single policy. It's a project that lives as long as a civilization does, a cascading phenomenon with no endpoint.
The great political economist Henry George writes that human progress itself "goes on as the advances made by one generation are...secured as the common property of the next, and made the starting point for new advances."
As I've suggested throughout this essay, I take the heart of human progress to be the improvement of consciousness. On this perspective, progress calls for making advances and "securing them as the common property of the next," which may be achieved by designing economic institutions that unconditionally provision resources to all citizens of that society, generating an open-ended increase of meaningful exit options.
We've explored agency at three scales, each offering unique perspectives on the umbrella project of increasing agency. Mental autonomy guides us to train agency like any other skill, teaching the young techniques for exercising second-order regulation over first-order mental content. Cognitive horizons guide us to make short-term goals easier to satisfy, and use methods of counterfactual pruning - meditation, psychedelics, therapy, and beyond - to develop less biased, more flexible, rich, creative minds. Social agency guides us to design socioeconomic institutions that provision unconditional access to resources, supporting increasingly voluntary decision making, or, meaningful notions of "free choice".
And yet, if we were to exterminate the human race via a nuclear bomb next month, or continue our patterns of stripping the biosphere of the regenerative capacity it requires to keep us alive, all this talk of experiential depth and agency would be cut short.
In that spirit, we move to the third and final principle of this consciousness ethics sketch: sustainability.
III. We should foster behaviors that raise the probability for the sustained emergence of increasingly deep and agentic states of consciousness in the future
If consciousness is the most important thing in the world so far as humans are concerned, we ought to make sure we maintain the conditions for its continuation. Now, as I pointed out at the outset, it's unlikely that consciousness will persist forever. Some freak cosmic event, whether a heat death, asteroid, or whatever else, will likely wipe us all out, one way or another.
But this doesn't absolve us of acting to sustain consciousness as long as possible. We should strive to preserve all instantiations of consciousness, and wherever possible, foster its improvement, understood as opening towards higher degrees of agency and depth.
This may direct us to consider everything from our increasingly devastating relationship to the ecologies we're part of, to the - admittedly far-out - risks of artificial intelligence optimizing for a function that wipes human consciousness from existence. Traditional political ideals can also find grounding in this principle, from ending all forms of war (though especially nuclear), to global coordination problems.
Taken together, these three principles form the basis of a crudely sketched, formal-ish consciousness ethics. We can call it the Depth, Agency, Sustainability model for consciousness ethics. Or, DAS model (my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek).
My hope in formalizing these principles is to make them easier to critique, which may lead to better models, which may lead to better consciousness ethics.
Other models already exist, like the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV). Basically, STV judges how good a state of consciousness is based on the harmonics of brain activity. The more symmetric over time - or, consonant - the brain activity, the higher the positive valence, or subjectively-felt-goodness, belonging to that state of consciousness.
How might these models be refined? What others models might we create? As the complexity and integration of information continues skyrocketing amidst a rapidly globalizing, digitizing society, and the evolution of consciousness is rapidly pulled in tow, how will we make sense of what kinds of consciousness we're creating? How will we steer consciousness towards its richer, kinder potentialities?
What might a society unified around the ethical framework of improving consciousness be like? What decisions might we make, now, were we to adopt such a stance?
A nifty feature of a consciousness ethics is that it offers a single, collective story about what matters that nevertheless generates diversity. Answers to the above question, the actual political and pragmatic implications of a consciousness ethics, will be as diverse as the people who participate in the story.
For example, I'll offer a list of some starting points that come to my mind. Doing so, I'm well aware that you may have an entirely different list, or may even think my own suggestions are absolutely wrong. This is the sort of political discourse I want: what is and isn't good for consciousness, and why?
Anyway, some provocations:
Again, an ethical commitment to consciousness being the most important thing in the world is an inherently heterogenous commitment. This sort of commitment doesn't constrict us, but instead, drives us to unfold the manifold potentialities we've only begun to taste. It drives us out in different directions to consider every possible angle of our lives. Consciousness is implicated in every human endeavor, every domain of knowledge, every field of study, and so provides an absolutely omnivorous foundational commitment.
A consciousness ethics fosters a commitment to diversity, novelty, agency, sustainability, and exploration, while simultaneously cohering our efforts around particular principles that can be applied across each domain. It fosters growth and coherence.
If each era of society is enthralled to a particular question, a particular piece of the human conundrum they orient themselves around, like an archer closing an eye and taking aim at a target held up by their particular cultural, civilizational moment, ours may well be: what is a good state of consciousness, and how can we foster more of them?
This, to me, is a question worth living for. And should the heat death finally wipe us out, the scattered matter that was once my body will rest easy, the shards of my mind bathing in exorbitant sufficiency, fulfilled by the knowledge that it was, too, a question worth dying for.
The purpose of this document is to facilitate sense-making on what’s become a complex, tribal, and absolutely vital subject of debate: universal basic income (UBI).
Think of this as a not-so-brief policy brief. A policy long, if you will. What policy briefs offer in brevity and distillation, they sacrifice in complexity and nuance. UBI’s surging popularity is producing an abundance of briefs, but a scarcity of longs. Briefs present fixed ideas, whereas longs reveal the flux and uncertainties beneath them.
Ironically, I only encountered UBI after receiving a degree in economics. I spent the next 5 years studying UBI, and the broader terrain of economic thinking that’s usually left off university curriculums.
Regarding UBI, I’ve occupied every position along the spectrum. I’ve been the starry-eyed supporter enthralled to its promises, and I’ve been the disillusioned skeptic, dismissing UBI as a well-intentioned, but naive lurch for utopia.
My hope is to provide an easy-to-navigate document that offers exposure to the many questions and conflicts driving the UBI debate. Hopefully, by offering the depth so many UBI puff-pieces lack, this policy long might help unsteady some of our fixed ideas, and lead us deeper into the labyrinth of considerations a UBI provokes.
Here’s a map of what’s covered below. Feel free to click & jump around to whatever interests you:
After exploring each of these areas in relative depth, I’ll conclude with a broader sentiment: economic insecurity has a dampening effect on human consciousness. The world is far more mysterious, wonderful, and stimulating than human perception can grasp, but economic insecurity further inhibits our capacities, like a horse with blinders on.
Despite being surrounded on all sides by enchantments, our lives are too often squandered in forms of suffering and anxiety that, in the 21st century, are preventable. The motivation behind UBI is one we all share: it’s time to build a better world. The motivation behind policy analysis is to ask: would UBI move us in that direction?
I recently published an in-depth exploration of the impact UBI might have on human development, consciousness, and social complexity. You can read that essay here.
UBI is an unconditional cash payment provided to all citizens, in an amount sufficient to meet their basic needs, on a (minimum) monthly basis. Most proposals include a reduced rate for minors.
Universal: Given to every individual, regardless of employment status, earnings, or demographic.
Basic: Sufficient to meet basic needs
The most common UBI amount - $1,000 per month - is based on the federal poverty line. The 2019 poverty line was $12,490, or $1,041 per month. Equating “basic” with the poverty line is consistent with the work of seminal economists and philosophers such as Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum.
Pinning the UBI amount to the poverty line requires adjusting the payout level for both inflation, and changes to how we define poverty.
UBI has two relevant costs, gross and net. The gross cost reflects the total revenue the government must raise to fund the program. The net cost reflects the actual expense to taxpayers.
Since funding a poverty level UBI requires progressive taxation, an upper portion of recipients will wind up paying more in new taxes than they receive from UBI. This creates a canceling out effect, where one receives $12,000 in UBI, but pays $14,000 in higher taxes. The effective cost to them is $2,000, rather than $14,000. The cost of UBI that takes these cancellations into account is the net cost.
The gross cost of a UBI equal to the poverty level in 2019 ($12,490) for all citizens above 18 would’ve been $3.2 trillion. Adding a 50% UBI for minors would increase the gross cost to $3.6 trillion.
Moving from gross to net cost is difficult to forecast, as it depends on the specific taxes used to fund it. But we can establish a range for the net cost from existing estimates. Political philosopher Karl Widerquist used a series of simplified assumptions to calculate the net cost of a $12,000 UBI for adults and $6,000 for children, totaling a gross cost of $3.42 trillion. His estimates yielded a net cost of $539 billion, or 15.7% of the gross cost.
For a similarly designed UBI, Scott Santens estimates a $900 billion annual net cost.
On the upper bound of the spectrum, economist Philip Harvey estimated the net cost of a similar - though not identical - UBI at $1.69 trillion.
Elsewhere, I’ve written on the philosophy of UBI, exploring it as a means of decommodifying time and diversifying human development. But in popular discourse, there are at least six categories of motivation for UBI:
I. Immediately ending official poverty in the US
II. Reducing the imbalance of power & wealth between labor & capital
III. Boosting demand by raising purchasing power of lower income groups
IV. The threat of automation & detaching a basic amount of livelihood from labor
V. Improving markets by providing for basic needs outside of markets, making remaining exchanges more voluntary
VI. Beginning to implement the cultural conditions for 'post-scarcity'
“There is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has…that the security of a minimum income should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom.”
— F.A. HAYEK
Automation is simultaneously the easiest narrative to stir up support for UBI, and the weakest one to build it upon. There is no critical consensus as to whether impending waves of automation will be any different than ones we’ve witnessed throughout history. Whether or not automation lives up to the hype, the case for UBI remains.
But there's a nuance in this argument worth pulling out. How will automation benefit society? How can we distribute and democratize the gains? How do we keep society from devolving into a class struggle between those who own the robots and those being replaced by them?
The question of who benefits from automation is firstly a question of power. If we’re concerned with power dynamics within firms, we can explore policies like codetermination, where worker representatives are given direct seats on company boards. This gives workers’ interests direct voting power in company decisions. Democratizing decision making power changes how productivity gains are implemented and realized in the first place, rather than relying on redistribution to take care of those who are left out of the gains.
But the sentiment of detaching labor from livelihood goes beyond automation. Since at least the 1800’s with Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, the stubborn tendency for wages to remain at the minimum that affords subsistence despite massive gains in capital accumulation has raised questions. As our accumulated wealth increases, why can we not guarantee a basic degree of livelihood irrespective of labor?
The case for UBI in this dynamic is best presented by a dialogue across 150 years, between George and the great novelist Marilynne Robinson. In 1879, George asked: “Why, in spite of increase in productive power, do wages tend to a minimum which will give but a bare living?” A century and a half later, Robinson ventures an answer: “because they can, neither ethics nor laws intervening.”
If livelihood is to untether itself from labor, it will not occur as a natural outcome of economies informed by neoclassical economic theory. Rising tides may lift all boats, but without explicit interventions, the distance between working class wages and subsistence levels in society will remain minimal.
UBI, whether as a response to automation, global pandemic, or whatever other shocks unsteady the economy, strives to ensure a basic dimension of survival security to all. By instituting an earnings floor in the economy that lifts the bottom up, it increases the distance between the lowest wages and the subsistence level.
“The association of poverty with progress is the great enigma of our times...From it come the clouds that overhang the future of the most progressive and self-reliant nations.”
— HENRY GEORGE, 1879
In the 21st century, domestic poverty in the US is a choice, rather than necessity. It is an outcome of policy choices (and lack thereof), rather than an enigma of progress, as it was in George’s day. And yet it rages on.
The cost of directly ending poverty for every citizen in the United States, by simply providing them a tax subsidy equal to the amount that would raise their incomes to the poverty level, would cost less than $200 billion. That’s 29% of the defense department’s budget.
Simply giving everyone exactly the amount they need to reach the poverty line creates all sorts of work disincentive problems. But the closest functional approach to formalizing that logic comes in the form of a negative income tax (NIT).
Rather than giving people the exact difference between their income and the poverty line, NIT’s use a phaseout tax rate that slowly decreases NIT benefits as earned income increases. This helps preserve work incentives and avoid poverty traps.
Incidentally, although NIT and UBI might appear quite different on the surface, the closer you look, the more difficult it becomes to tell the difference between NIT and UBI.
Economists agree that NIT and UBI would have the same net transfer effects, meaning the overall redistribution of income is identical either way. UBI gives everyone the full poverty-level amount, and then taxes some of that payout back - known as the clawback rate - from those higher in the income distribution. In UBI’s case, the clawback rate is implicit.
NIT, by contrast, adjusts payout levels to people’s incomes, avoiding the necessity to tax it back. The clawback rate is explicit. Studies suggest implicit clawback rates have psychological advantages. But the debate over which policy is preferable, UBI or NIT, is far from settled, and will hopefully come into full bloom as we commit ourselves to the eradication of poverty.
The 21st century US exhibits a confounding juxtaposition of poverty with prosperity. What Henry George wrote in 1879 is all the more true today:
“It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society, but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down.”
Policies like UBI and NIT seek to reposition the wedge of progress underneath society, so that all are lifted.
But crucially, UBI is not merely a measure to eliminate poverty. Framing UBI as just a countermeasure for poverty sells its reformative potential short, like a grandparent who uses an iPhone for nothing but phone calls.
Prior to the 1960’s, poverty was rarely considered separate from wider inequalities between labor and capital. Poverty is only the tail-end of inequality, a white-cap on the surface of a vast and deep ocean. Narrowing the focus of social reform from inequality to poverty, as sociologist Daniel Zamora wonderfully documents, was a project closely associated with the rise of neoliberal, free-market ideology.
It’s no coincidence that the first serious NIT proposal was made by none other than Milton Friedman, whose edifice of economic ideas supported the rise of neoliberal economics that dominated the period from 1972 - 2008. Zamora writes:
"In his view, a focus on “poverty” was the only reasonable social policy within a free market system. If we followed a policy that tended to reduce inequality we would inevitably affect 'the heart of the dynamism of the market economy.' A program directed specifically against poverty, on the other hand, as argued by Friedman himself, 'while operating through the market' would 'not distort the market or impede its functioning,' as did Keynesian programs.”
But at least since Thomas Piketty’s landmark 2013 book, Capital in the 21st Century (not to mention his more recent, and more ambitious Capital and Ideology), the broader spectrum of inequality is back in the spotlight of popular discourse.
UBI critics on the progressive left are concerned that UBI, on its own, is not only insufficient to combat inequality, but might actually further entrench the forces that generate inequality in the first place.
From this angle, UBI is categorized as merely a redistributive reform, doing nothing to change the underlying dynamics that create wealth inequality, and so power inequalities, in the first place.
These criticisms are important, but partial and often misleading. UBI can be considered alongside reforms that more directly target power dynamics. However there is no reason to use an either/or framework, rather than a both/and. UBI offers a unique kind of power distribution that other reforms such as codetermination cannot.
Where codetermination democratizes power inside firms, UBI increases the bargaining power of labor from outside. This is often referred to as the power to "say no” to exploitative labor contracts. With UBI, workers have a foundation of security that allows them to more readily reject undesirable working conditions. This appeals to a broad base of economic thinking, as it’s in line with Adam Smith’s vision for “perfect liberty”.
For Smith, perfect liberty meant every worker is free to choose what job suits them best, and to change as often as they like in search of the best fit. He writes of perfect liberty as a state:
“…where every [hu]man was perfectly free both to choose what occupation [s]he thought proper, and to change it as often as [s]he thought proper. Every [hu]man’s interest would prompt him to seek the advantageous, and to shun the disadvantageous employment.”
An adequate UBI creates an environment in which workers enjoy greater fluidity between jobs, enabling their search for the right fit. But once they accept a job, UBI’s effects on power subside. Within firms, codetermination can then take over, giving workers greater say over how their places of employment make decisions.
What are the necessary conditions for freedom in a market society? Prior to enclosure movements that began claiming all land under the legal jurisdiction of private property, individuals had a choice. One could participate in 'society’, whatever that entailed. Or, if society was of no interest, you were free to find a plot of land, cultivate the earth, and survive on your own.
But ever since all available land was swept up into private ownership, this ‘exit option’ is off the table. In order to access the resources we need to survive, the only choice available to most people is participating in the market economy and earning enough income to buy what you need.
Effectively, people lost the power to say “no” at a basic level. Participation in market society is the only option, and this creates opportunities for exploitation. UBI recreates the lost exit option. By unconditionally providing people enough to meet their basic needs, UBI empowers people with the means to exit exploitation.
By giving workers the power to say no, UBI provides what political philosopher Karl Widerquist calls the physical basis for voluntary trade. From a different angle, anthropologist David Graeber frames UBI as the safe-word in a safe-word theory of social liberation. By affording people the real option of saying no, of opting out of exploitation, it increases the freedom with which we can say “yes”.
Extending UBI to everyone, the social and labor relations that hold society together would be remade. People could opt out of exploitative relationships without sacrificing their basic needs. The relations that remain, and the new ones that take shape, would be based on increasingly voluntary decisions.
Without these sufficient conditions that assure all transactions in a market economy are voluntary, the entire theoretical justification of market economies collapses. Widerquist writes:
"...when neoclassical economists theorize about the world, they assume voluntary exchange is taking place. Building on this assumption, neoclassical economics goes on to conclude a variety of important results such as that market activity is efficient, that free trade has net positive effects and that markets in which economic agents participate voluntarily make them better off...Although the legitimacy of the market economy is premised on voluntary trade, without a reasonable exit option, the trading system as a whole lacks an acceptable alternative.”
We are left with two choices. Either unconditionally provide everyone with the physical basis for voluntary trade, or abandon the appeal to voluntary trade as a justification for market economies.
Whether UBI would shrink or grow the economy depends on a dazzling web of interdependent factors, making all predictions tenuous at best. As you might expect, economists have constructed models that give all sorts of contradicting reports. Some models predict UBI stimulates growth, while others expect precisely the opposite.
But most models agree on one important element: The lower one is on the income distribution, the higher the likelihood they will spend any additional dollar they receive. Conversely, the wealthier one is, the more likely they are to save each marginal dollar they receive. This has important implications for forecasting how UBI might stimulate economic activity.
Even if UBI does not increase economic growth, and functions as a pure redistribution of income from the top towards the bottom, economic activity would likely increase. Shifting money from those at the top who are more likely to save, to those at the bottom who are more likely to spend, we can expect an increase in aggregate demand. High income inequality, writes John Maynard Keynes, “causes a separation between the power to consume and the desire to consume.”
By redistributing money to where the desire to consume is highest, overall consumption will increase.
The 2008 financial collapse stirred our socioeconomic imaginations. Business as usual lost its appeal. But what comes next? The term post-scarcity is a phrase used to gesture towards a society where scarcity is no longer the organizing principle of human behavior. As the economic historian Robert Heilbroner writes:
“For the introduction of technology has one last effect whose ultimate implications for the metamorphosis of capitalism are perhaps greatest of all. This is the effect of technology in steadily raising the average level of well-being; thereby gradually bringing to an end the condition of material need as an effective stimulus for human behavior”
Reaching all the way back to Keynes, post-scarcity refers to a society where the marginal value of capital goods drops to near zero. Consider a pencil today. We have no problems asking each other to borrow pencils. It’s considered rude, if you have extras, not to give someone a pencil who asks. And most tellingly, if you forget to give the pencil back, it isn’t a big deal.
This is because the marginal value of pencils - a capital good - is near zero. People’s lives are hardly improved by gaining additional pencils. They’re easily accessible at low costs. Keynes imagined a society where all capital goods were as common as pencils, and therefore shared with those who need them without so much as a second thought. He writes:
"The course of affairs will simply be that there will be ever larger and larger classes and groups of people from whom problems of economic necessity have been practically removed. The critical difference will be realised when this condition has become so general that the nature of one’s duty to one’s neighbour is changed. For it will remain reasonable to be economically purposive for others after it has ceased to be reasonable for oneself.”
With material goods receding to occupy a negligible portion of our aspirations (not because we somehow become less materialistic, but because everyone has abundant access to all capital goods they could want), new stimuli for human behavior would naturally emerge. Different forms of immaterial capital (social, cultural, etc) would become the focus of our energies.
UBI, a program that gives everyone a baseline of unconditional income (access to capital), begins to implement these conditions of post-scarcity. In market economies, unconditional income (for which one needn’t trade any time, labor, or money) provides immediate access goods and services we’d otherwise need to trade our time in order to receive. The more unconditional income provided, the less of one’s life-time that must be traded to acquire the goods and services we need.
This lowers the threshold of earnings required for people to meet their basic needs and, should they choose to, devote their time to unpaid activities. Human behavior becomes unbound from the imperative to earn income. Unpaid activities become more viable life-choices.
The theory of post-scarcity has to do with marginal value and rate of return on capital. But the praxis of post-scarcity shows up in the kind of cultural logic that emerges out of a society with wide-spread decreasing returns on capital goods.
As the scholar Robert Chernomas writes: “Keynes’s concern is with achieving the logic, humanity, and culture of a society that could be built only when preoccupation with economic concerns becomes unnecessary."
UBI does not achieve post-scarcity. In fact, some critics suggest the redistributional nature of UBI precludes it from ever being able to fully realize post-scarcity. Since UBI is restricted to redistributing existing wealth, it remains dependent upon a society organized around the accumulation of financial capital. If capital accumulation withers away, no longer the central stimulus driving human behavior, the overall quantity of wealth created will also shrink, reducing the available funding pool for UBI.
These criticisms are important, but not damning. While it is theoretically conceivable that a networked economy with increasing returns could actually skim off enough of those returns to fund a post-scarcity inducing UBI, in practice, this remains beyond immediate reach.
But a UBI can still create spaces of post-scarcity within the interstices of the broader capitalist system. These interstitial post-scarcity spaces allow us to begin experimenting and exploring with new ways of organizing ourselves. These shallows of experimentation, however incomplete and piecemeal, are vital for developing our imaginative capacity to design new systems.
The more radical a proposal, the more scrutiny it should receive. Given the magnitude of UBI, in terms of both implications and costs, it merits abundant scrutiny. I’ll cover a range of critiques, responding to them where possible, and indicating those that remain unanswered.
I. UBI won't change anything
II. Couldn't UBI collapse the economy?
III. We'll all become lazy & dependent
IV. Who will do the ugly jobs?
V. What about free riders?
VI. Won't prices increase?
VII. Won't the majority of net recipients just demand more and more UBI from the rich?
Counter-intuitively, one of the sharpest polemics against UBI comes from the progressive left. In Daniel Zamora’s brilliant The Case Against a Basic Income, he writes:
“UBI isn’t an alternative to neoliberalism, but an ideological capitulation to it. In fact, the most viable forms of basic income would universalize precarious labor and extend the sphere of the market — just as the gurus of Silicon Valley hope.”
This view builds from Luke Martinelli’s assessment: an affordable UBI is inadequate, and an adequate UBI is unaffordable. If all that’s affordable is a UBI well below the poverty level, then these critics argue that nothing will fundamentally change. An inadequate UBI fails to grant workers sufficient means to reject exploitative jobs, fails to eliminate poverty, and fails to establish the physical basis for voluntary trade. Effectively, all an inadequate UBI would do is provide a cash stimulus to existing markets.
Moreover, even an adequate (poverty level) UBI could function as a capitulation to neoliberalism if it’s conceived as a full replacement, rather than supplement, to existing welfare and social programs. When Milton Friedman proposed his guaranteed income in the form of a negative income tax, this is precisely what he had in mind. Same with Charles Murray’s more recent UBI proposal.
The validity of this critique then relies on two factors: the UBI amount, and how we pay for it.
But as Zamora himself notes, funding an adequate UBI is a question of political, rather than economic feasibility. Of course we could fund an adequate UBI. The capitulation critique does not doubt this. Rather, they doubt that it’s realistic that the necessary taxes could make it through the political process.
The capitulation critique, then, does not apply to a poverty level UBI funded by progressive taxation. It merely doubts its political viability. Far from a nail in the coffin, this points to the conspicuous lack of rigor applied to existing progressive funding proposals for an adequate UBI. If we are to overcome this sense of politically impossibility, we need to put forward realistic funding models.
If we manage to fund an adequate UBI, won’t we all just become idlers? Won’t we just waste the free time we’re afforded? Is it worth enacting the largest program in American politics simply to enable people to spend more time watching Netflix and going to the beach?
At heart, this is a question of human nature. How would humans behave if they weren’t compelled to act by the threat of starvation and homelessness? Is human nature fixed, or does it adapt to changing social circumstances?
In fact, this is one of the main divergence points between Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Both believed that society thrives by maintaining an artificial scarcity. But Smith believes maintaining artificial scarcity is the only way to incentivize humans to engage in socially productive activities:
"And it is well that nature imposes [artificial scarcity] upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealth, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life"
Marx held a more adaptive, evolutionary view of human nature. He believed that how we spend our leisure time is inextricably linked to the working conditions and modes of production present in society. He writes that “all history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature.”
Both John Maynard Keynes and Henry George side with Marx on this question. The transformation of material and social conditions, they believe, will lead to the transformation of human behavior. George writes, in what I suspect is a direct counter to Smith:
“But it may be said, to banish want and the fear of want, would be to destroy the stimulus to exertion; men would become simply idlers, and such a happy state of general comfort and content would be the death of progress. This is the old slaveholders’ argument, that men can be driven to labor only with the lash. Nothing is more untrue.”
Worrying that UBI would amplify our idleness, our ‘time wasting’ behaviors, is a fallacy that assumes present behaviors would continue unchanged in radically altered social conditions. It fails to account for how economic distress presently weighs upon, and influences, how workers spend their ‘time off’.
As I’ve written about elsewhere, an adequate UBI must be considered in light of its implications for human development. The kinds of humans we become by living in society would likely change.
But there is a deeper assumption that motivates the human nature critique of UBI: that we have a right to judge how others spend their time.
In terms of UBI, this assumption arises because people’s free time would be, in part, funded by redistributing the earned income of some to all. Do we owe this kind of financial support to each other?
This critique is commonly known as the free rider problem.
The free rider problem suggests that even if UBI wouldn’t create “universal basic idling”, it isn't fair to redistribute earnings from hard-working citizens towards those who don’t contribute value to society. By receiving tax-funded income without contributing their own labor income to the tax base that funds UBI, they’re ‘free riding’ off the earned income of others. In this view, UBI gives people “something for nothing”.
A poverty-level UBI of $12,490 is hardly a living wage for even the most ascetic of citizens; most will continue to work and earn additional income. However, it is plausible to imagine at least some percentage of the population who choose to live off their UBI alone. It’s more likely to see a proliferation of full-time workers drop to part-time. UBI could make up enough of the difference so that they can maintain relatively similar lifestyles, while generating fewer taxable wages for the overall pot.
How might this criticism change if we apply it to parents who choose to stay home and raise their children? Does the same sense of unfairness come into play when recipients use UBI to fund socially valuable activities that markets fail to compensate? Surely a devoted parent is worth more to society than an unmotivated office administrator, or insurance salesman?
What about aspiring scientists who use the newfound financial and time freedoms to focus on exploring new theories? Or artists who dedicate their time to creativity? In this sense, UBI functions to extend earnings to those engaged in socially valuable pursuits that markets fail to compensate for.
Where free riding turns problematic is the assumption that willfully unemployed UBI recipients will live in ways that do not create value for society. Receiving “something for nothing”. But this is not only assumed, it stands in direct conflict with empirical studies on how UBI affects labor force participation. Even beyond the question of whether UBI would stimulate or stifle economic activity, a larger question looms: are we comfortable letting markets be the judge of what constitutes value?
Using wages as the prime indicator of value-creation solidifies the market's role in determining social value. But much of the progressive left’s movement is about displacing earnings as sole indications of social value. There are forms of value markets systematically fail to recognize, and forms of socially valuable (usually long-term) investments that markets fail to incentivize. Not to mention the forms of negative value that markets stimulate.
In this sense, the free-rider problem might not be a problem at all, but a solution. It functions alongside the market to stimulate forms of social value that markets leave behind.
Another proposed response to the free-rider problem is to shift the narrative frame of UBI. Since progressive taxes that draw from high-earning sectors of society would fund UBI, some claim that UBI is not redistributing the rightful ‘earnings’ of others, but distributes the portion of collective wealth that’s captured by high private earnings. In this sense, UBI is more of a social dividend that formalizes the collective nature of value creation on modern economies.
Consider how this logic of social dividends applies to raising the corporate tax rate, for example. Mariana Mazzucato has demonstrated how much of the iPhone's signature technology is a result of publicly funded R&D. Although taxpayers effectively socialize the risk of this R&D, the financial returns on that investment are privatized, none of which goes back to the taxpayers who (partially) funded the investment.
Should not a small portion of the financial earnings from publicly funded innovation return to those who funded the initial research? Isn’t the public entitled to share in the financial returns on innovations our tax dollars paid for?
Similar logic is at play for many high-earning sectors of society. From Google, Apple, to Tesla, Mazzucato shows how stories of value creation systematically neglect the role of public investment. Framing UBI as a social dividend formalizes the collective nature of value creation, paying dividends on the public’s investment in innovations that spur private fortunes.
A common example is the Alaska Permanent Fund, which taxes all mineral (primarily oil) royalties a minimum of 25%. They reason that Alaskan oil belongs to all Alaskans, rather than whoever manages to dig it up first. Anyone who uses the oil must compensate all other collective owners for excluding them from using it.
The tax revenues are deposited into an investment portfolio that each Alaskan shares an equal share in, receiving annual dividends that fluctuate with the stock market. Applying this logic nationally, Matt Breunig’s proposal for a social wealth fund makes every American an equal shareholder in a collectively owned portfolio.
Framing UBI as a social dividend only makes sense if the funding mechanisms draw from areas of society where large private earnings are bolstered by neglecting public contributions. To sufficiently appease free-rider concerns, UBI advocates must demonstrate what sectors of society wind up paying for UBI under their funding proposals.
In Zamora’s polemic against UBI, he asks a cutting question: if an adequate UBI gives workers the ability to say “no” to undesirable labor, how can we be sure all the work that needs doing, would get done?
“...a ‘utopian’ [by which he means at least poverty level] UBI raises questions about how the distribution of work — that is, the division of labor — would be determined in a society where we could choose not to work...A “utopian” UBI...simply assumes that in a society liberated from the work imperative, the spontaneous aggregation of individual desires would yield a division of labor conducive to a properly functioning society; that the desires of individuals newly freed to choose what they wish to do would spontaneously yield a perfectly functional division of labor. But this expectation is assumed rather than demonstrated.”
First, it’s worth nothing that by “utopian” UBI, Zamora means a poverty level, or $1,041 monthly UBI. This is hardly enough for even the most ascetic citizens to live on alone. We should certainly expect radical changes to the labor market. But the work incentive, while perhaps marginally dampened, is far from “liberated” by such a UBI.
Liberation aside, Zamora’s point remains. What if nobody chooses to work as a janitor anymore? What if no one is willing to clean the sewers? Unless technology fulfills its promise and automates all of the work humans would rather not do, the full division of labor required to maintain society may include jobs that people, given the means, simply wouldn’t take.
This is one of the greatest fissures in UBI discourse. The ‘work imperative’ is both the glue that holds the system together, and a bleak reality that suffocates working classes. We cannot yet outsource all undesirable jobs to robots. While a work incentive remains even with a poverty level UBI, critical attention must be turned to reflecting on how to maintain the necessary division of labor.
On one hand, David Graeber believes with a UBI, bullshit jobs might simply disappear, because people wouldn’t take them. Alternatively, those unattractive jobs that still require doing for society to function may be forced to offer higher wages. The ways in which wages might respond to UBI lead us into the fascinating territory of the sustainability critique.
We can imagine that huge amounts of people may choose to drop from full to part-time work, supplementing the gap in income with UBI. On the whole, this may lead to a decrease in taxable wages. As taxable wages decrease, so does the pool of money taxes draw from to fund the UBI.
The magnitude of this decrease depends largely on what kinds of taxes are used to fund the UBI. A system that relies heavily on income taxes would face serious issues with a decreasing taxable wage base. But if UBI were funded with land value taxes, carbon taxes, wealth taxes, consumption taxes, capital gains taxes, etc., UBI’s dependence on taxable wages would be lessened.
Still, what if UBI, by dampening the work imperative, succeeds almost too well in allowing people to engage in more unpaid activities? What if the size of the formal economy shrinks, tax revenues wither, and UBI winds up eroding the very capital flows that sustained it?
There’s a relevant concept in economics known as the Laffer curve. It says that as you increase a tax rate, you'll raise more revenue until a certain point, after which the tax rate is so high that it discourages people from engaging in the activity, and the tax revenues begin to decline.
For example, imagine a carbon tax. If a carbon tax increases the price of gasoline from $2.50/gallon, up to $2.85/gallon, most consumers won’t change their behaviors. They’ll consume just as much gasoline, yielding higher tax revenue.
But if the tax shot the price up to $10/gallon, many consumers would change their behaviors to consume less gas, yielding less tax revenue:
We can apply the Laffer curve to UBI, asking how overall tax revenues respond to the level of UBI. Just like the Laffer curve, beginning with a UBI of 0, we’d have today’s present tax revenue. As the UBI increases to $50, $100, $200, we’d expect tax revenues to increase for two reasons.
First, because of the increased tax revenues required to fund the UBI. Second, a UBI funded by progressive taxes redistributes money from higher ends of the income distribution to the lower. The wealthy are less likely to spend each marginal dollar they receive, while lower income groups are more likely to spend any additional dollar they receive. So we can expect that UBI would stimulate economic activity, leading to more taxable revenue.
But as the UBI increases, the imperative to work decreases, and the progressive taxes required to fund the UBI grow steeper. At some point, we reach the peak of the curve, beyond which overall tax revenues begin to decrease as people stop working, and others cease chasing large fortunes that would just be reclaimed by taxes.
In this case, we’re faced with a design project: find the optimal level of UBI that maximizes the payout without decreasing tax revenue.
But the sustainability question can go a step further. What if we find this optimal balance point that provides a sufficiently high UBI to cover people’s basic needs without eroding its own tax base or tanking the economy. How does the economy change? As we explored in the division of labor section, a high enough UBI threatens to eliminate the incentive to do undesirable work.
In a wonderfully provocative 1986 paper - The Capitalist Road to Communism - Philippe Van Parijs and Robert van der Veen explore this question. Assuming a sustainable and adequate UBI, they hypothesize a “twist” in capitalist logic, whereby wage rates for undesirable work will increase to attract workers, while wages for desirable work will decrease, since people have enough to cover their basic needs and are more free to accept more interesting work for lower pay. “Consequently,” they write:
“...the capitalist logic of profit will, much more than previously, foster technical innovation and organizational change that improve the quality of work and thereby reduce the drudgery required per unit of product.”
How will the twist in capitalist logic create incentives that reduce the “drudgery required per unity of product”? Consider the cost of human labor relative to its automatized equivalent. Presently, it’s usually cheaper to hire human workers than invest in the machinery and automation that can perform equivalent work. But already, we’re seeing roaming robots replace supermarket workers, self-driving cars replacing drivers, and tablets replacing waiters at restaurants.
If this twist of capitalist logic drives up the wage rate for undesirable work, the cost relation will flip. It will become more expensive to hire humans at higher wages where machines can do the equivalent labor. The costs of automation will become a rational choice for capitalists when the equivalent cost of labor surpasses it.
These are uncertain speculations, to be sure. And the assumption that there exists an optimal level of UBI that covers basic needs without grinding down its own tax base is little more than an assumption. We have economic models that suggest UBI would decrease growth, while others say just the opposite.
In the face of these uncertainties, we may nevertheless rest assured that UBI would fundamentally change the economy, and in so doing, the kinds of lives we lead. We should speculate as widely as possible, and survey the many possibilities as diligently as we can.
If we can conclude anything from these concerns and speculations, perhaps it’s that moving in the direction of UBI merits prudence. While we must understand that how the economy responds to a $250 UBI cannot be extrapolated to suggest its response to a $1,000 UBI - the two are fundamentally different - we do have the option of moving towards UBI, rather than diving straight into the unknown.
If everyone receives an extra $12,490 annually, won’t producers raise prices to absorb this extra capital? Won’t landlords raise rent, retail stores raise prices, ultimately absorbing the UBI entirely such that no meaningful changes remain?
In brief: maybe a little bit, but probably not much.
Inflation is not so simple as: people receive more money, therefore producers increase prices. Inflation only occurs when aggregate supply is unable to keep up with increasing demand. So long as people’s purchasing power increases, and supply can scale to match, there is no inflation.
Moreover, most UBI proposals do not even propose to increase the money supply. UBI funded by progressive taxes just shuffles existing money around. But even if a UBI were funded entirely by printing the requisite $3.6 trillion every year and adding it to the economy, it’s not clear how much inflation would actually occur.
While prevailing logic assumes such an action would cause so much inflation as to render the idea obviously detestable, the matter is far from obvious. For example, Ellen Brown writes that, by virtue of how money is created, “our money supply is in a chronic state of deflation.” When banks approve a loan, that money is created and assimilates into the economy. But the subsequent interest owed is not created, so money creation always furthers the deficit that divides money owed from money circulating in the economy.
This gap between debt owed and the money supply creates a buffer against inflation. Any increase in the money supply that closes this gap (i.e., UBI money used to pay existing debts) causes no inflation.
But few UBI proposals rely on deficit spending - most use progressive taxes to redistribute money downwards. In this case, the money supply does not increase, but spending patterns and purchasing power do.
The lower on the income distribution one falls, the higher their propensity to spend each additional dollar they receive. So if progressive taxes redistribute money downwards via UBI, we can expect aggregate spending in the economy to increase. So long as supply can scale up to match increased demand, no inflation occurs.
Inflation only occurs when supply hits its maximum, and increasing demand cannot be matched by increasing supply. So the degree to which the economy can increase its supply also provides a buffer that absorbs inflation.
For example, since 1982, every Alaskan citizen has received a partial UBI through taxes levied on oil revenues. Each year, citizens receive anywhere from $1,000 - $2,000. From the introduction of their partial UBI to the present, Alaska has experienced lower inflation than the rest of the nation. This, despite every citizen receiving an extra ~$1,500 annually.
Similar results were found when the Mexican government conducted experiments across a network of villages. Villages where people received direct cash transfers experienced no statistically significant changes in prices.
Results from the Alaska, or rural Mexican villages can only tell us so much about how the entire US economy would react to a UBI. A more representative study looked specifically at how a UBI funded by progressive taxation (specifically, by progressive income taxation, which is a more distortionary UBI than most proposals that use forms of taxation other than excessive income taxes) would affect housing prices in New York City. They find that a $5,000 household UBI (another departure from actual UBI proposals, that distribute benefits per individual) would increase aggregate welfare of the bottom 50% of the wealth distribution. Most notably, they find that this UBI would actually decrease housing prices.
All models should be taken skeptically, as there always exists inherent limitations in our ability to actually model UBI. Not to mention the varying assumptions required to construct models that often differ from the actual UBI proposals these models are used to evaluate. Nevertheless. Each successive experimental context related to UBI and inflation suggests the same finding: there is no obvious causality between unconditional income transfers and price inflation.
Another common concern goes like this: funding a UBI requires progressive taxes that fall mostly on the wealthy. But the wealthy constitute only a minority in society. If the majority of society are net UBI recipients, meaning they receive more in UBI than they pay in increased taxes, what’s to stop them from leveraging their majority and voting to raise the level of UBI, exploiting the rich minority?
This concern can be handled in the same way we handle voting for presidential impeachment, an event too important to leave up to mere majority rule. For the senate to impeach a president, they require a supermajority consensus. This is just a higher threshold of consensus than other measures require. Requiring a supermajority to change UBI levels can help prevent partisan exploitations and tyrannical majorities.
At the moment, how to pay for UBI is the most important question of the discussion. There’s plenty of theory, there are well-reasoned arguments on all sides. What we need to develop are realistic funding proposals that we can subject to scrutiny.
The relevant question isn’t can we pay for UBI, but should we pay for UBI. Of course we can. We could finance the entire program through deficit spending, just creating the money and handing it out (as banks do daily when approving loans). But that probably isn’t a good idea, because the inflationary consequences of doing so likely outweigh the benefits.
How we pay for UBI determines everything from how economic incentives change, to whether it functions as a floor or ceiling for social policy. A handful of proposals for UBI exist, but they mostly lack the attention to detail that enables a transition from politically impossible to politically viable.
No single tax is sufficient to fund UBI. Raising $3.6 trillion in revenue requires a coalition of progressive taxes. But this also presents an opportunity to meaningfully redesign and update economic incentives for the 21st century.
Here, I’ll gather a list of relevant taxes and strategies, together with revenue projections. There is no agreement on how much a wealth tax, for example, would raise. So I’ll include the range of revenue projections, from conservative skepticism to passionate optimism.
Projected annual revenue: $18.9 billion - $70 billion.
Example: Adding an eighth tax bracket for incomes above $10 million taxed at 70% is projected to raise anywhere from $18.9 billion, if no other tax changes are made, up to $70 billion if a broader progressive taxation system is in place.
Background: According to research by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, 2018 marked the first time the wealthiest members of society paid a lower effective tax rate than the poorest:
The conversation on how to implement a more progressive tax system is now booming. One facet of the broader project of progressive taxation is marginal income tax rates. Marginal income tax rates in America on the highest income groups used to exceed 90% (with effective rates closer to 60%), while today, the highest bracket faces a tax rate of 37% (with far lower effective rates). All incomes above $400,000 are treated to this same rate.
Research by Zucman, Saez, and Stantcheva (2014) attempts to derive the optimal top rate of taxation to maximize revenue, in relation to the Laffer curve for income taxes. They find that a rate of 83% on the highest incomes maximises revenue.
But recent progressive proposals to simply add an 8th bracket on incomes above $10 million leave the space between $400,000 and $10 million unchanged. We need more nuance in how we tax incomes.
A first-principles approach might draw from the idea of a monotonically increasing tax rate that does away with brackets altogether. Every additional dollar earned is subjected to a slightly higher tax rate, achieving a truly progressive tax on income that adheres to Adam Smith’s original guideline:
“The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.”
But to avoid such predictable responses to higher income tax rates as capital flight and fiscal manipulation (realizing earnings as capital gains rather than personal income to avoid higher tax rates), any progressive income tax must be part of a broader program of tax reform.
Projected revenues: $6 billion - $170 billion.
Examples: Shifting to a carryover tax basis is projected to raise $10.4 billion annually, and taxing capital gains of the top 1% on an accrual basis could yield $170 billion. These projections are for changing methodology, rather than raising rates.
Revenue projections for raising capital gains rates are complex, because outcomes depend on the broader system of taxation. As such, models that predict a $6 billion annual raise in revenue by raising capital gains taxes from 20% to 24.2% are tenuous.
Background: Capital gains are the second most prevalent mode of realizing income, functioning in tandem with labor income taxes. This is why considering capital gains and income taxes alongside each other is so important: at upper levels of the income distribution, gains are often transferable between these two categories.
Projected revenues: $118 billion - $375 billion.
Example: A 2% tax on wealth above $50 million, cranking up to 3% on wealth above $1 billion, is projected to raise $275 billion, annually.
Background: Many European countries tried wealth taxes, most proved ineffective. Recent economists advocating for a wealth tax acknowledge that we must learn from these failures to design an effective wealth tax.
European wealth taxes failed for a variety of reasons. Foremost among them was the low bar of wealth subjected to the tax. European wealth tax rates kicked in around $1 million, whereas US proposals kick in at either $34 or $50 million. This alone eliminates most liquidity issues that plagued european wealth taxes.
Additionally, it’s quite easy to switch residency within EU countries, moving wealth into those with weaker tax regulations and lower rates. This kind of residency evasion is much less likely in the US, where changing one’s country of residence has a higher bar.
Projected revenues: $100 billion - $210 billion.
Examples: A tax of $25 per metric ton on most greenhouse gas emissions in the US could raise slightly over $100 billion annually, while a tax of $49 per metric ton of carbon dioxide could raise closer to $210 billion annually.
Background: There are two important elements to the debate over carbon tax. First, a successful carbon tax would yield diminishing revenues, moving towards zero. Second, there’s a design question: a carbon tax sets a price on carbon and lets emissions calibrate organically, while a cap-and-trade approach sets an emissions level and lets prices calibrate organically.
Each strategy has particular strengths and weaknesses that may complement each other well in a mixed approach.
Projected revenues: $9.6 billion - $200+ billion
Example: Reforming how the corporate tax is levied often offers more potential revenue than raising the rate. Still, the 2017 tax cuts reduced the corporate rate from 35% to 21%, leading to a $135 billion decline in corporate income tax revenue.
The congressional budget office (CBO) estimated the revenues for a mere 1% increase in the corporate tax rate, finding a $9.6 billion annual increase.
Background: 379 of the Fortune 500 companies paid an effective federal tax rate of 11.3% on their 2018 income, 9.7% less than the actual corporate tax rate of 21%. 91 of those corporations - including Amazon, Chevron, IBM - paid $0 in taxes on their 2018 income.
Discussions about the corporate tax rate often focus on the stated tax rate, rather than the effective tax rate paid. These situations are made possible by various deductions, allowances, and loopholes. Corporate taxation reform should begin with a reevaluation of how the tax is applied.
Projected revenues: $100 billion - $750 billion.
Example: LVT projections are scant. Some of the most recent academic work for full-scale national projections dates back to 1985. The author estimated that a full LVT could raise 28% of national income, yielding $658 billion in 1981 (28% of national income in 2018 would yield $5.8 trillion).
More recent and sober estimates range from smaller, targeted LVT rates that yield closer to $100 - $200 billion in annual revenue, up to a 5% LVT that raises $750 billion.
Background: A land value tax (LVT) was Henry George’s big idea. He sought to socialize land (place it all under collective, rather than private, ownership) and replace all government taxation with a tax on land values. While the notion of replacing all taxes today with a land value tax is far-fetched, smaller-scale land-value taxes are theoretically possible. Indeed, small scale LVT’s are used around the world.
LVT’s are attractive in theory, but treacherous in practice. Implementing a LVT at a national scale would present a series of administrative challenges. These are far from insurmountable, but require magnitudes of attention and innovation to transform the conversation from fantasy to reality.
Projected revenues: $600 billion - $1.3 trillion.
Examples: CBO estimates for a 5% VAT tax range from $190 billion to $290 billion annually, depending on details. Committees have expanded these findings to estimate that a 10% VAT tax would raise approximately $600 billion per year. Estimates on broader-base 10% VAT tax expect revenues of $1.3 trillion per year.
Background: A VAT is used in most of the developed world. 166 of 193 countries with UN membership have one in place. While varieties of VAT proposals are gaining momentum, progressive economists caution that the burden of taxation is ultimately regressive.
VAT’s were conceived in the post-war 20th century, when industries that define 21st century economies were relatively small - finance, insurance, education, and healthcare. Today, these high powered industries would either be beyond the reach of the VAT, or able to pass on the cost burden to consumers.
Projected revenue: $1.2 trillion.
Example: A national income tax was proposed by Emmanuel Saez & Gabriel Zucman in 2019 as a progressive alternative to the VAT. The tax applies to all income - capital and labor - at a single flat rate with no deductions or exemptions. They estimate a 6% national income tax could raise $1.2 trillion annually.
Background: In their 2019 book, Zucman & Saez propose a new tax innovation to ‘leapfrog’ the VAT:
“The United States can leapfrog the VAT. It can pave the way in the creation of the fiscal institutions of the twenty-first century—as it did during the twentieth century. How? By creating a national income tax.”
Its virtue, by including both capital and labor with no exemptions, is the comprehensiveness of national income subject to the tax. This makes it possible to raise high revenues with low rates. The reason such a tax has never been implemented is largely because it incentivizes capital flight - wealthy entities basing their assets in other countries to avoid higher rates.
Accordingly, this kind of tax is only realistic in partnership with reformed taxation of multinational companies and tax havens.
Projected revenues: $60 billion - $75 billion.
Example: A 0.34% broad-based FTT could raise a maximum of 0.4% of GDP, or $75 billion.
Background: A FTT, beyond raising revenue, has a significant corrective effect on the unbridled incentives of the finance industry. By discouraging high-frequency, short-term trading, a FTT discourages the short-termism that has plagued the economy since deregulation loosened capital controls in the 1970’s.
Projected revenues: $200 billion - $771 billion.
Example: While total welfare expenditures hover near $771 billion, Wiederspan, Rhodes, & Shaefer (2015) isolate means-tested programs that a UBI or NIT would make redundant. They project savings of $207 billion.
Background: As I’ve mentioned, the progressivity of UBI depends on whether it supplements, or replaces existing social programs. The full spectrum of which welfare programs should supplement UBI and which should fold their revenues into funding merits widespread critical discussion. But with a total welfare budget of $771.4 billion in 2019, a notable portion of funding can be derived from existing welfare expenditures without threatening progressivity.
It should also be noted that even if most welfare programs are left in place, their costs would greatly shrink in response to a UBI that elevates most citizens beyond their eligibility requirements.
Projected revenues: $59 billion.
Example: Reducing the defense department’s budget by 10%, phased in over a 10-year period, would save $59 billion annually.
Projected revenues: $200 billion - $500 billion.
Examples: By replacing one of every three dollars of social security received with UBI, recipients could increase their overall receipts while saving $324.2 billion.
Alternatively, rather than reducing payouts for those who’ve already paid in, after passing UBI we could justify reducing the 6.2% tax rate on employees that pays into social security, since SS payouts wouldn’t need to remain as high after being complemented by UBI.
Finally, raising the cap on social security payments up to $250,000 would raise an extra $80 billion, while subjecting earnings greater than $250,000 to a 12.4% payroll tax could raise $122 billion, annually.
Total annual revenue range: $2.6 trillion - $5.6 trillion
I am under no delusions that we could sensibly enact all these reforms and raise $5.6 trillion. These taxes cannot all be implemented at their upper projections, and implementing some would eliminate the possibility of implementing others.
The complexity and nuance at stake in accounting for how taxes interact with one another is why we need an influx of proposals from experts of all stripes. But they can be pieced together into cohesive, broad-spectrum proposals.
One example comes from Zucman & Saez’s 2019 book. They propose a tax plan that combines: a wealth tax, corporate tax, higher marginal income tax rates, higher taxation of capital gains, and a national income tax (6% flat tax on all income, labor and capital, no deductions). They predict this combination would yield $1.8 trillion in annual revenue:
This leaves on the table: financial transaction taxes, carbon taxes, any redundant welfare programs, social security reform, expected gains from economic growth, and deficit spending, to name a few.
It’s also worth noting that the point of a UBI funded by progressive taxes is to reduce the tax burden on most people. The taxes used in Saez & Zucman’s proposal, for example, only raise taxes on society’s wealthiest sectors. But for full UBI proposals, taxes will inevitably be raised on some portion of the middle class. It’s important to delineate exactly whose taxes will be raised, and where the breakeven point occurs along the income distribution.
I won’t attempt to suggest a better constellation of taxes - I’m not the guy you want doing that. But it’s demonstrably possible to put together a functional proposal, and we need more of them.
The particular form UBI might take is shrouded in ambiguity. In light of our tour through the relevant considerations, I’d like to propose a few elements worth considering if, following wide-spread democratic discourse and critical reflection, we wind up pursuing some form of UBI.
For UBI to achieve decommodification, rather than serve as a subsidy for capitalists, it must provide, at minimum, the physical basis for voluntary trade. Building off the work of Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen, and Karl Widerquist, we can equate this level with the poverty line, yielding a 2019 UBI level of $12,490, or $1,041 per month.
The poverty-level UBI must be guaranteed, which requires reliable and stable sources of funding (modest LVT, national income tax on both labor and capital, financial transaction taxes, reallocating existing revenues, etc).
But what to do with revenues from taxes with more volatile revenues? Wealth and carbon taxes, for example, will change behaviors and lead to fluctuating, and likely decreasing, revenues over time. These are taxes implemented not primarily to raise money, but to alter economic incentives. In this same category of taxes with fluctuating revenues we can include taxes on natural resources (like Alaska’s Permanent Fund), data dividends, and rental revenues on collectively owned assets like broadband spectrum rights, land, or a social wealth fund.
These can all be treated as revenue-neutral taxes, where revenues are equally divided amongst citizens in the form of a social dividend. The social dividend could form an additional, fluctuating layer of benefits atop the guaranteed poverty level that is free to evolve, grow, and shrink alongside capital flows without threatening the basic income.
In fact, an interesting dynamic emerges when there exists a social dividend that can facilitate revenue neutral taxes. Each dollar spent by the government must justify why it is better off going into government expenditures rather than the social dividend pot. All government spending then ‘trades against’ per capita distribution, creating an incentive alignment that optimizes both, while promoting citizen oversight of government spending.
This is what I call a split-tier UBI. The bottom layer must be adequate to provide the physical basis for voluntary trade by meeting the poverty line, while a fluctuating social dividend may layer atop the base to provide a commonly owned stake in certain capital flows.
One of the most common critiques of UBI goes something like: “Why would we pay Mark Zuckerberg $1,049 a month?!” In practice, his UBI acts as a minor tax credit on his much larger tax payment. He pays far more than he receives.
While UBI advocates use this logic to dismiss the critique, the question can be pressed. If a billionaire doesn’t receive any UBI payment after taxes are accounted for, why pay it at all? Why provide a tax credit on larger tax payments (the reason given is usually to avoid the administrative imposition of means-testing). Taking this logic to its conclusion winds up replacing UBI with NIT: only those who need the money most should receive it.
However, a basic income with high-end phaseout rates is different, falling somewhere between NIT and UBI. Columbia’s Poverty Center released a 2020 report analyzing a basic - but not universal - income program with a phaseout rate that kicks in at $150,000 and phases benefits out by $200,000.
We saw this same logic applied to the $1,200 stimulus checks provided by the US government during the Covid-19 pandemic. Individuals earning up to $75,000 received the full amount. Beyond that, the payment began phasing out, reaching zero for those who earned $99,000 or higher.
Using high-end phaseout rates effectively makes the cost burden more progressive by eliminating the payments that function as tax credits for individuals above the breakeven point.
It remains an open (and highly pertinent!) research question whether these savings would offset the additional costs of means-testing.
Since any guaranteed income proposal must be funded by progressive taxes, there will always be some who receive, and some who pay. The tradeoffs should be explored: what do we lose by violating universality with high-end phaseout rates? Whether the differences would justify abandoning the principle of universality merits significant discussion, but it’s worth considering.
Crucial to the efficacy of UBI is that it’s understood as a floor, rather than ceiling to social policy. Narrative framing is important, but the real decisive factor in this balance is how the UBI is paid for. UBI proposals must be clear about which programs would fold in order to fund it, which would remain alongside, and the broader projects UBI can facilitate.
Some of the strongest critiques of UBI come in the form of alternative proposals that accomplish similar reforms through more modest methods.
Raising the gross budget required for UBI - $3.6 trillion - we could fully fund universal healthcare, a poverty-eradicating negative income tax, and have over $1 trillion leftover. Alternatively, if we implemented reforms like universal healthcare, affordable housing, and mass transit programs that reduce the need for personal vehicles, we could reduce the required individual monthly spending on basic needs by an amount equivalent, if not greater, than a poverty level UBI.
With this all in mind, let’s survey some of the leading proposed alternatives to UBI.
I’ve mentioned NIT throughout the essay, and will return to it in the conclusion. Here, I’ll briefly describe how it works.
NIT is composed of two variables: an income floor, and a phaseout tax rate. The income floor sets the amount an individual with $0 of annual income receives from the program. The phaseout rate determines how much of the NIT is phased out for each dollar of earned income. Together, the phaseout tax rate and the income floor create a third element: the breakeven point. This is the earnings level at which NIT benefits reach $0.
Anyone who earns less than the breakeven point receives a proportion of the difference between their earnings and the breakeven point. That proportion is determined by the phaseout rate.
For example, consider a NIT with an income floor of $13,000, and a phaseout rate of 33%. This sets the breakeven point at $39,393. Anyone who earns below $39,393 receives 33% of the difference between their earned income and the breakeven point.
This means if I earn $0 annually, I receive 33% of $39,393, or $13,000. As my income increases, my NIT benefit slowly phases out, reaching zero when my income surpasses $39,393.
Depending on where the income floor and phaseout tax rate are set, annual cost estimates for NIT range from $179 billion, all the way up to $1.09 trillion. Here’s a list of a proposals, from one of the best recent papers on NIT, with income thresholds at 75%, 100%, and 133% of the poverty line, with phaseout rates that maintain benefits until earnings exceed 150%, 266%, and 403% of the poverty line:
Recall the differences between UBI and NIT. Since NIT payouts must constantly adjust themselves to fluctuations in income, a system of income reporting and administration is required to maintain the program.
If NIT payments are to be distributed monthly, as UBI proposals are, this requires a monthly system of income reporting, rather than the yearly we’re currently accustomed to. This is why UBI proponents prefer giving everyone the same amount and using progressive taxes to adjust the distribution. It greatly reduces the bureaucracy and opportunities for error and exploitation in the program, while achieving a similar net transfer effect.
Personally, I see this as one of the most potent areas for digital innovation. A monthly NIT would be difficult with the present state of income reporting and governmental capacities. But modernized digital programs could significantly reduce the frictions, perhaps even automating the process entirely.
Universal basic services (UBS) refers to a comprehensive provisioning of public goods and services, including various combinations of healthcare, housing, transportation, internet services, food, and so on.
Crucially, UBS proposals are inconsistent on whether or not UBI is part of the package. A UBS that includes income - and therefore a UBI - as one of the unconditionally provided features is hardly different from most progressive proposals for UBI. This UBS just formalizes the insistence that UBI alone is insufficient, and must be complemented by a broader program of reform.
But some prominent proposals for UBS advocate for services instead of income, providing the physical means for voluntary trade in kind, rather than in cash. These UBS proposals arose out of the UBI movement, sharing their intent while believing direct provision of services is a better use of available funds than direct cash transfers.
But while UBI has a long history of scholarship, theory, and discourse, UBS proposals are scant. For example, the Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) is perhaps the leading advocacy group for UBS. In 2017, they released a full proposal under the heading of UBS that proposed anything but. They estimated it would cost $53 billion annually to provide housing, food, transport, and basic communications services (cell phone and internet access) to all UK citizens.
Of these four elements, two - food and housing - were means-tested (decidedly not universal), and universal transportation amounted to little more than free bus rides. Means-testing is a significant break from the philosophy of most UBI advocacy. Their subsequent 2019 report recoiled, offering no cost estimate and striking both food and housing from the proposal, including childcare and adult social care instead.
Guy Standing, a leading advocate for basic income, concludes his comparison of UBI and UBS by pleading with UBS advocates to “stop juxtaposing the idea of more and better public services with giving people basic income security.” The either/or dichotomy is misleading, because “they address different needs and stem from different rationales.”
Perhaps the greatest difference between UBI and UBS is optionality. With UBS, what services one needs are determined by a centralized group. What constitutes sufficient food, housing, communication, are all determined, and monitored, by the government. This way of thinking is an extension of 20th century social democratic reforms to expand welfare states.
By providing the cash equivalent for basic needs, UBI increases people’s optionality in how best to spend the money, and what on. Doing so also maintains the incentive for innovation in these industries.
If these two approaches are brought together, how can we determine what areas of life should be directly provided, and which should be provided as cash equivalents? Why do progressives prefer universal healthcare to just giving people enough money to buy private health insurance?
Here’s a basic heuristic for making sense of this: in markets with significant market failures (like healthcare, or prisons), direct provision of services may be preferable. In well functioning markets, cash equivalents afford greater optionality and maintain the conditions for innovation.
Another increasingly popular alternative to UBI is a federal jobs guarantee (FJG). A FJG would provide a ‘public option’ for employment to all those who want it, paying a livable wage plus benefits.
Cost estimates range from $46 billion, up to $550 billion, to $750 billion, giving an idea of the diversity of proposals that go under the head of a FJG.
To compare, we might contrast a FJG with the previously listed motivations for UBI. The question of detaching livelihood from labor is the single largest point of divergent between these two approaches. A FJG does not decouple, but reinforces, the connection between labor and livelihood.
Proponents do suggest that a FJG could effectively eliminate poverty to all those able and willing to work. This amounts to a conditional elimination of poverty, and so a necessarily partial result. In terms of inequality, a FJG does have indirect effects on working conditions. The federal jobs program could put pressure on the private sector, forcing private jobs to at least match public benefits. Why take a $12.50/hr job in retail when you could get a $15/hr government job with benefits? In this fashion, a FJG could create an implicit minimum wage through competition, rather than federal mandates.
Compared with the status quo, both a FJG and UBI offer a likely improvement. But for all they share, their differences are sharp. Consider the worst-case scenario for each.
With a UBI, one of the public’s greatest concerns is a recipient may move into their parents basement and do nothing but watch television, drink beer, smoke weed, and eat chips all day. The UBI, taxed from the earned income of others, would support this lifestyle.
By contrast, if basic livelihood is afforded through a FJG, imagine the spiritual plight of a worker consigned to meaningless, pointless labor merely in order to satisfy the work requirement for receiving a living wage. If the government is unable to provide quality work for all participants in the program, the outcome is dystopian.
The question of the best means to provide everyone with their basic needs may come down to the question of human nature: do we empower people to decide for themselves how their time is best spent, or utilize labor requirements to make sure no one receives taxed benefits without contributing to society in a way that labor markets deem valuable?
Put differently: who do we ultimately give the power to determine the best use of their lives, people, or the government?
Codetermination, while not a direct alternative to UBI, should be included in these discussions. Much UBI advocacy centers around power. The “power” to say no, and so on. Earlier, we mentioned how UBI gives workers power outside firms, while codetermination decentralizes power within firms. Though a national mandate to place worker representatives on company boards sounds politically far-fetched, Germany has had just such a system in place since 1976.
By giving workers voting rights in company decisions, codetermination places a check on the forces of short-termism plaguing the American corporate landscape since the 1970’s. And at no cost.
Empirical evaluations of German codetermination are yet to reach consensus, but find generally encouraging results. Across the spectrum of studies, most (but not all) find positive gains in productivity, a decrease in share buybacks, improved working conditions, and less unequal distribution of rents. Less positive findings include slight declines in profitability rates and stock prices.
The German board structure differs from that of the US. Germany has two boards, supervisory and executive, while the US corporate model only has one. Nevertheless, plans exist that adapt the German model to the US structure, notably reducing the required representation from 50% of the German supervisory board to 40% on US boards.
At least since Marx, reducing working hours without reducing pay has been the heart of labor-driven reform. “The true realm of freedom,” he writes, “can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic perquisite.” The labor movement made this sentiment a reality through their fights to create the weekend, and 40-hour working weeks.
While average working hours have steadily decreased ever since, the rate began leveling off in the 1980’s:
Around the same time, wage growth also began leveling off, while productivity continued its climb:
Add to this the familiar graphs showing how income shares of the top 1%, corporate executive compensation, and stock buybacks have all rapidly increased since around this same time in the 80’s, and the case for shorter work weeks gains momentum.
Shortening the working week without decreasing pay lets workers share in the gains they’ve missed out on the past 50 years. In practice, this might be achieved in at least two ways. One possibility, likely through codetermination, is individual firms voting to decrease the workweek, perhaps by eliminating Fridays. Workers could still receive payment through some form of paid leave for Friday’s lost wages. This was the strategy used by Microsoft Japan when they tested 4-day work weeks, yielding promising results, both morally and economically.
Another, more decisive path is through federal legislation. Congress could amend the Fair Labor Standards act, and the President could sign into law a reduction of the workweek from 40 hours to 32 (by reducing the threshold where overtime pay begins from the former to the latter).
A social wealth fund is a collectively owned investment portfolio. Every American receives one share of ownership, and so receives a universal basic dividend (UBD). As the portfolio value increases, so does the dividend payment.
The fund can grow by accumulating assets (stocks, bonds, real estate), levying taxes on land, capital, or natural resources (as Alaska’s Permanent Fund does), or monetary seigniorage (where the Federal Reserve creates money to purchase assets).
A proposal was put forward by the People’s Policy Project. In their projection, the UBD is set at 4% of the five-year moving average of the fund’s market value. Assuming a $10 trillion average - in line with the proposals projections - the UBD would yield between $1,000 - $2,000 annually per person, depending on specifics.
As such, social wealth funds, while excellent strategies to democratize investment in the economy’s capital stock, cannot yet provide enough income to meaningfully displace UBI or similar proposals.
But for all the promise of UBI, there is no denying the political barriers to enacting a program that requires upwards of $3 trillion in funding. Without engaging with the realities of our political climate, this may all amount to nothing more than howling in the wind. Some consider advocating for a direct leap from where we are today into a fully funded UBI a hopeless endeavor, a “nonrealist political philosophy” that’s “disjoined from real politics.”
Accordingly, we may consider a modernized negative income tax as a strategy sharing the sentiments behind UBI, while remaining well within the boundaries of economic and political viability.
By “modernized NIT”, I mean an unconditional NIT paid out to all individuals below an income threshold set above the poverty line, with a low phaseout rate, funded by progressive taxation, using the latest digital technologies to minimize bureaucracy, that complements rather than replaces existing and future social programs, made available at a minimum of monthly installments.
For example, Wiederspan, Rhodes, & Shaefer (2015) estimate the cost for a NIT with an income floor set 33% above the poverty line, a phaseout tax rate of 33%, and thus a breakeven point at 403% of the poverty line at $635 billion, annually.
Using 2019 numbers, this translates into an income threshold of $16,611, providing benefits until citizens earn above $50,335. Every additional dollar one earns from $0 up to the $50,334th dollar, one loses $0.33 of NIT benefits. Their cost of $635 is given in 2007 dollars. Adjusting to 2020 dollars yields a cost of $791 billion.
A significant portion of the cost could be covered by folding existing means-tested programs that NIT makes redundant. These might include the earned income tax credit ($59 billion), supplemental security income ($58 billion), temporary assistance for needy families ($16.7 billion), and the supplemental nutrition assistance program ($64 billion). Together, reallocating these revenues into funding the modernized NIT covers $198 billion, annually.
On the subject of reforming existing federal expenditures, we might revisit the $540 billion spent (in 2013 dollars) on tax programs (tax credits, deductions, exclusions, exemptions, deferrals, and reduced rates) that overwhelmingly benefit the highest tiers of the wealth distribution. At the least, this could mean eliminating the home mortgage interest deduction and the real estate tax deduction, freeing up at least $89 billion annually.
We could fund the remaining $504 billion by any number of progressive tax combinations. Perhaps the simplest method would be to update the income tax conventionally used to fund NIT, making it more progressive by applying it to capital as well as labor. We could do so by phasing in a version of the national income tax proposed by economists Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez (2019).
They estimate a 6% flat rate nation income tax applied to both capital and labor income with no deductions would raise $1.2 trillion, annually. We could phase in this income tax, beginning at the breakeven point where NIT benefits subside (in this example, $50,335). Using the 2018 income distribution, this tax would apply to over 60.1% of households and still the majority of income earned in the economy. A top rate of 3-4% would likely be sufficient to fund the entire remainder of the modernized NIT.
Alternatively, a combination of a financial transaction tax, carbon tax, wealth tax, and raising the effective corporate tax rate could comfortably fund the remaining $437 billion, with minor deficit spending available for discrepancies.
Basic income (BI) - whether UBI, modernized NIT, or non-universal basic income with a high-level phaseout rate - is one of the most important cultural conversations of the early 21st century. Considered alongside something like codetermination, we could structurally redesign socioeconomic dynamics to birth a new system from within the old.
There are things we know about the human condition that are yet to be made part of our social systems. We may not know how much happiness money can buy, but poverty certainly buys misery. Misery and poverty create their own gravitational culture that traps people inside. Through the pull of these invisible forces, poverty begets more poverty.
BI could eviscerate the deflationary, inward-pulling culture of poverty. But as I have argued elsewhere, BI is about more than poverty. It’s about redesigning the socioeconomic forces that guide human development.
Unconditional income is an opportunity to decommodify our lives. The more money we unconditionally receive, the more accessible it becomes to shift ourselves towards the projects, actions, and behaviors - ways of living - that we accumulate money for. These ways of living are qualitatively different, in that they are for themselves, rather than for money.
As anxieties over income that pervade most of our ways of living recede, our social institutions would reconstitute themselves. How might education evolve if most students weren’t preoccupied with securing a high-paying job? How might work evolve if we were more interested in the products of our labor than the paychecks we receive?
The speculations at hand are intoxicating. But as with all intoxication, the process of integration requires thoughtful diligence. The work of translating basic income from wishful vapors into a real policy option requires evaluative rigor.
Towards that end, I hope I’ve done less to convince you of my own opinions, than provoked you to develop your own.
Here’s a selection of some of the more interesting reads I’ve collected about basic income. Both positive and negative perspectives are mixed in.
I’d like to thank Evan Kasakove for providing feedback and helping edit this piece.