Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Contempt for the Poor as Public Policy

Earlier this week, I read (in the New Revised Standard Version) Jeremiah 5:27-29:

Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of treachery; therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things? says the LORD, and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?
You know what "not defend[ing] the rights of the needy" looks like? Negative means testing.

I support a policy that is sometimes called Universal Basic Income (UBI). Andrew Yang made it a central item in his recent campaign for the Democrat Party nomination. Following Yang's suspension of his campaign, other candidates and members of Congress have supported similar proposals. People like Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Mitt Romney (R-UT).

President Trump's initial economic stimulus plan called for a payroll tax cut, but payroll taxes only matter for people on payrolls. With the expected spike in the unemployment rate (some estimates say we could see 30% unemployment in a few weeks), millions of Americans will soon be off payrolls. Also, while payroll taxes come mostly from workers' wages (because the relative elasticity of workers' supply of labor is less than the relative elasticity of firms' demand for labor), the mechanism for lower payroll taxes turning into higher workers' wages is not a short-term process; companies don't say, "Because our taxes went down last week, we're giving you all raises." So a period of stagnant or contracting employment will not get payroll tax cuts to workers.

Now, President Trump cannot be expected to make the sound decision, normally, but sometimes he surprises us all by following the advice of some random sane people who managed to sneak close to him somehow. And that's what happened when he pretty quickly pivoted from payroll tax cuts to something that looks a lot like UBI. I, like an idiot, thought, "We're going to get temporary UBI this week!"

First, Senate Republicans tried to phase IN the benefits, disqualifying most households with no or negative tax liability. To be clear, the way you get no or negative tax liability is to BE POOR. While Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) hates the rich so much that she couldn't allow a vote on a bill that didn't include means testing, taking out the "universal" part of "Universal Basic Income," Senate Republicans hate the poor so much that they couldn't bear the idea of handing out too much money to them.

Next came every crackpot with his own tweak to a UBI plan. Why not include children? Why not give more to first responders? Why not prohibit stock buy-backs? Why not send the bill to the Federal Reserve? Lastly came the Green New Dealers, with proposals like requiring corporate board diversification.

Remember when John Bercow weeded through the Brexit proposals and then held an up-or-down vote on each sufficiently-distinct plan? All while yelling "ORE-DUH!"? We need something like that here, soon, or else our 535 legislators are going to end up providing the most compelling support for a military coup our country has ever seen.

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