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Democrats Tiptoe Around Universal Basic Income

Strange Bedfellows Arise Over Social Safety Net Proposal


United States Vice President Joe Biden Visits Australia
Jessica Hromas/Getty Images

When former Vice President Joe Biden announced his opposition to universal basic income a few weeks ago, it seemed like he was drawing a line in the sand that he believed progressives shouldn't cross.

To his left, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — who may be preparing to reprise his role as a left-wing antagonist in the next presidential primary — supports the policy. But unlike his aggressive push to bring other Democrats on board for his proposal for a single-payer health insurance system, he realizes his colleagues who are officially part of the Democratic Party aren't ready to embrace a safety net of guaranteed wages yet.

That, it seems, is just too radical — for now.

Universal basic income (UBI, or guaranteed income) is the idea that every citizen should receive a regular stipend from the government as a way to bolster the social safety net, combat wage stagnation, and, more recently, to account for job loss from automation.

In her book, “What Happened,” Hillary Clinton writes that she was fascinated by the idea and dispatched her policy team to crunch numbers to gauge whether it was a viable option for the country.

“To provide a meaningful dividend each year to every citizen, you'd have to raise enormous sums of money, and that would either mean a lot of new taxes or cannibalizing other important programs,” she writes. “We decided it was exciting but not realistic, and left it on the shelf. That was the responsible decision.”

Following her defeat, the issue presents a dilemma for high-profile Democrats, who are trying to figure out exactly what to fight for in a changing economy. Many aren't ready to discuss the issue yet. Others are telegraphing stances against it. But champions in the tech community and older, union-focused Democrats who may lean toward it could force an uncomfortable conversation soon.

Tech entrepreneurs such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla CEO Elon Musk are influential and outspoken advocates of basic income as a response to automation, claiming the need to address the problem will become more urgent as technological innovation continues.

So it stands to reason that California Democrats are among those with the most developed opinions on basic income because the issue is close to home. And yet they are breaking with their donors in Big Tech and beginning to line up against it.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who represents Silicon Valley, told Independent Journal Review in an interview Friday that he doesn't support UBI and instead supports an expansion of the earned income tax credit, a proposal he's currently pushing for in Congress.

“There is a dignity to work. People want the jobs of the future, and there are going to be a lot of those jobs,” Khanna said, noting that while technology certainly will transform every industry, he believes new types of jobs will emerge in those industries as a result.

Because he represents Silicon Valley, Khanna conceded that some of his more influential and powerful constituents support UBI. But, he said, “Most people I meet in my district and around this country don't want a handout. They want a ladder of economic opportunity.”

Khanna also doubts predictions of a jobless future due to automation. In lieu of UBI, Khanna said, the government should focus on encouraging technology proficiency and boosting wages.

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) also wrote off basic income as a policy.

“I don't like it,” he told IJR. “We should have universal basic skills.”

Swalwell added that implementing guaranteed income would overlook the responsibility entrepreneurs have to ensure that innovation creates more jobs than it displaces.

Instead of basic income, Swalwell said, Democrats should look into expanding opportunities for students by investing in technology for schools across the country and making community college affordable for people from all walks of life.

“What we should look at is how you create and fund that type of training for people,” he said. “As businesses continue to innovate, what is their responsibility to be a part of making sure that people still can get skills?”

Despite this and other opposition — like Biden's — some lawmakers think it should at least be up for discussion.

“It's not an idea that's ready for prime time today, but it's going to have to be on the table as we try to figure out what to do with the increasing pace of automation,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told IJR.

In light of recent campaign failures, Democrats are trying to find a balance between advocating for progressive ideas while still appealing to moderate and conservative voters in the Rust Belt. Some Democrats think ideas like basic income might not contribute to that goal.

“[UBI] is an interesting thought experiment, but it's still too much in the realm of the impractical for me to spend a whole lot of time thinking about it,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told IJR.

“The premise of UBI is that work will be destroyed so much that you will need something like that ... I don't completely accept that that's the way things are going,” he added.

Will it play a large role in the 2018 midterm elections? Probably not, Kaine said. But the question will certainly be asked of prospective presidential candidates in 2020.

“I'm thinking about it,” California Sen. Kamala Harris answered when pressed on the issue. “I'm interested in the various theories, but I haven't fully formed a perspective on it yet.”

Meanwhile, some Democrats would prefer to avoid the question altogether.

“I don't know quite what that means,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) responded when IJR asked how he felt about universal basic income. “I'm not going to do a sort of 'what if' question like that, sorry.”

“I've never heard of that,” the moderate, self-described practical Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told IJR. “Never heard of it.”

Likewise, after an awkward Senate subway ride in which IJR was reminded Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) does not do spontaneous hallway interviews with reporters, her office did not respond to an email request for information about her position on the issue.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) didn't answer the question. “You're wondering how I feel about a complicated policy issue as I'm sprinting to a vote?” he asked before quickly hopping into an elevator.

Democrats were willing to talk about how they'd like to address automation, even if they weren't immediately familiar with UBI, though. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said she comes from a manufacturing state and has seen the effects of technological innovation replacing human jobs firsthand. She supports the expansion of apprenticeship programs, she told IJR.

While some lawmakers kept mum on the issue, insiders expect pressure will mount for lawmakers to choose sides on policy questions such as UBI leading up to the Democratic primary in 2020, even if some proposals have little chance of becoming law.

“There's a new Democratic Party being born. And it's very unclear what it's going to be,” said Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of the influential left-leaning think tank, the New Democrat Network.

Rosenberg, who has worked in Democratic politics for more than two decades, said he doesn't see emerging policy disputes like UBI as fierce sectarian battles. Instead, he emphasized his view that it is a productive discussion.

“The various strains of [the Democratic Party] are going to wrestle with each other over the next few years, culminating in the presidential nominating process. But so far, that debate has been very healthy. It's not been toxic,” Rosenberg said.

“There's a sense that we need a new path and that there's going to be a lot of experimentation over the next couple of years,” he added. “By the time we have a nominee in 2020, the Democratic Party is going to look and feel different from Obama and Clinton's party.”

For now, though, many Democratic lawmakers are playing it safe.

“How could I question the wisdom of Vice President Biden?” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) responded when asked for his thoughts on basic income.

“My hope and expectation is that we will find other creative, productive, and positive ways for people to be engaged in employment. But it's a conversation well worth having,” he said.