Guaranteeing Income

To Steven Shafarman
From David Swanson
Re “We the People”
Jan. 27, 2002:
I have read “We the People,” and have started reading “Healing Politics.” I think you’ve done a great job of imagining a different society. You book is packed with concise and important insights into the ways we habitually view our political problems. I’ve benefited from many of your ideas. I enthusiastically support many of your proposals.

I have some doubts, however, both about the society you envision and about how we can get there. I’m going to focus on what I disagree with.

As you know, you have not proposed one simple change, but a huge package of changes in federal law. It would take an extraordinary movement to get them all passed in a single bill or even a single year or decade. And even some of the ideas that I favor, I only favor if they should be enacted in combination with some of the others. Many I think would make sense if you were talking about a higher amount of money, but are extremely undesirable if you are talking about $400 to $800.

Your first proposal is that people get $400 to $800 per month. You describe this as providing people with security, but it would do no such thing. No one can live on $800 per month. As an addition to current programs, such an amount might be very helpful, but your justification for it presupposes the elimination of other programs. If you were talking about $1,200 or $1,500 I would think your entire theory was beautiful and extremely well put together. Since you are talking about such low numbers, it seems to me like there is a giant gap in the base of the edifice you construct.

I could enthusiastically support your idea for “citizen policies” and many of your other ideas if you were talking about $1,500 and you were insisting that that amount automatically keep pace with the cost of living. Giving people $800, eliminating their other means of support, and then allowing that $800 to decline in real value every year is a recipe for enormous suffering.

You suggest that the amount be adjusted after elections, that states and cities could provide supplements, and that it would be “quite simple” to increase the amount during recessions. But I have no reason to believe that the amount would be adjusted to keep pace with the cost of living unless such an increase were written into the law from the start, and I have no reason to believe that localities would supplement the amount provided or that Congress would increase it. Congress’s record on the minimum wage law is pathetic. You seem unconcerned, and suggest (page 5) that we eliminate “most government programs,” and rely only on this one. Then you recommend (page 10) that someone’s $400 to $800 be redirected if they owe “child support, fines, penalties, victim restitution, and could be withheld from anyone who is incarcerated.” This sounds to me like a way to leave many people with no means of support at all and to provide the government with yet another financial motive for locking people up.

Why did you pick such a low number ($400 to $800)? As support for someone lacking any other income, it makes no sense at all. As assistance for people with moderate income struggling to achieve some degree of security and comfort, it makes more sense. On page 13 you suggest that only a tiny percentage of people, such as Bill Gates, do not need this money. To me this seems to imply that you have in mind assistance for middle class people more than subsistance for the poor.

I recognize the problem in cutting back dividends for wealthier Americans, but you do not seem to recognize the problem the poorest Americans face in trying to survive. They cannot do it on $400-$800. Nor will that amount allow them to perform community services for free, promote union organizing without fear of retaliation, strike without fear of hunger, or in any way better their situations.

Many of your other ideas seem only remotely connected to “Citizen Policies.” Most of them I support. Others I do not. One that I do not is a flat tax. You offer no argument for a flat tax, but assert falsely that we all agree that the current taxation system is unfair and needlessly complex. I don’t care in the least how complex it is as long as there are good reasons for the complexity that outweigh administrative costs, and I think it is unfair because it is too flat, not because it is too progressive. I am interested not only in eliminating poverty, but also in equalizing wealth and the power that goes with wealth. (Of course, publicly funded campaigns would somewhat reduce this power inequity.)

I don’t think supporting your idea for citizen policies (modified to a higher dollar amount) requires abandoning my concern for restraining the widening of the wealth gap.

So, I will encourage people to read your book, because it stimulates a lot of thinking, and I would support your main proposal if you upped the dollar amount. (Of course, free public health care, free and reliable transportation and child care, fair lending practices and affordable housing construction could all reduce the amount of money needed, but I have no way of calculating what the necessary amount would be.)

If your idea is going to appeal to conservatives and liberals, as you hope, and as I think possible, it should appeal to them honestly on its merits. Conservatives should accept a decent citizen dividend for all the right reasons and in light of all the right tradeoffs. They cannot do that if you do not propose a decent amount. What they can do is accept the low amount in full knowledge that it won’t support anyone or result in many of the societal changes you envision. But how are you going to get the liberals on board?

Feb. 19, 2002 Response from Steve Shafarman:

Thanks for your thoughtful response to my books and your offer to “enthusiastically support” many of my proposals. Especially, thanks for being so clear about your concerns and disagreements — that’s really helpful, and too rare.

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