The political left in the US desperately needs a Big New Idea, a policy prescription that will grab the imagination of both the base and lower-income voters of all colors, genders and creeds. Electoral victory for any legitimate left-wing movement necessarily depends on this. A good candidate is a basic minimum income for all citizens, funded — in part anyhow — by a tax on carbon emissions. It’s a policy combo that would touch on three overriding issues the Left has to forcefully and effectively address if it wants to recover lost electoral ground and foster a safer and more egalitarian future: income disparity, climate change, and potential robotics-related job losses.
This Big New Idea has enough Republican backing to avoid a charge of radicalism or implausibility within the US political landscape as it is today.
Basic minimum income (BMI) is the concept that all citizens should be given enough cash to subsist on at a basic level, regardless of age, employment, wealth or other qualifications. It may sound unrealistic in a country in which even the most meager welfare programs are controversial, but every citizen of the red state of Alaska now receives an annual payout from the state’s oil income on just that basis. All they have to do is live there.
BMI has already become a hot idea in some interestingly disparate circles. Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook Mark Zuckerberg have both expressed interest without fully endorsing the concept “yet.” Canada and Finland are experimenting with it. Former Clinton-era Labor Secretary Robert Reich espouses it, as do several Left-wing political writers who, like Reich and the tech titans, are seeking a solution to low paying and potentially disappearing jobs. Theorists on the left often go a step further and propose that by allowing people to work less, BMI would create “a world in which people are no longer bound to their jobs, but free to create their own lives,” to quote Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams.
BMI appeals to many staunch defenders of capitalism for related but slightly different reasons: They fear that robotics could destroy so many jobs that consumer demand becomes too weak to support the massive globalized business structure. Some on the right also see BMI as a simple alternative to complex existing welfare programs that they say favor some groups unfairly over others.
Sounds nice, but how to pay for it? Many argue that, over time, cost considerations will fade as more goods and services — particularly energy — get onto the same downward cost curve as information technology-based services and become readily available for almost nothing. Whether or not that eventually transpires, a basic income would have to be paid for in the interim in the good old-fashioned way, by taxing somebody or something, assuming we want to avoid the bad old-fashioned approach of simply borrowing the money.
A potential solution was recently suggested, albeit without openly calling it BMI, by a group of US Republican Party stalwarts led by former Treasury Secretaries and Secretaries of State James Baker, George Shultz and Henry Paulson. Under the banner of the Climate Leadership Council (CLC), with Baker at the microphone, the group proposed, just after Donald Trump’s election, that the US adopt a “revenue-neutral” carbon tax starting at $40 per ton of carbon emitted — similar to the amount Canada is aiming to levy by 2022 and much more than Europe’s currently paltry charge — and rising steadily from there.
In order to keep the tax revenue-neutral, the proceeds would be rebated through checks sent out quarterly to every adult and child with a US social security number. At the starting level of $40/ton of carbon, a family of four would receive a rebate of $2,000 annually. Admittedly, that’s hardly enough to fully support anybody. But it’s a nascent BMI that might grow over time as the tax rose, depending on how quickly total emissions fall, and it could make the BMI concept highly popular.
With such a tax in place to discourage carbon emissions, “much of the EPA’s regulatory authority over carbon dioxide emissions would be phased out,” to quote the CLC’s official version of the proposal. This would perhaps enhance its appeal to conservatives without hurting the climate,. since the EPA’s carbon-fighting measures have yet to take effect due to legal challenges, and won’t now do so under the Trump administration. The rebate would be progressive, as two-thirds or more of mostly relatively low income households would be net beneficiaries, the CLC calculates, while mainly wealthier people would pay more tax than they get back in the rebate.
The Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a largely liberal group in which Obama administration Energy Secretary Steven Chu and famed climate scientist James Hansen are active, back a similar plan. Closer to home, University of Maine Philosophy Professor and former Camden Philosophical Society speaker Michael Howard has written extensively on linking carbon taxes, the “Alaska model” and a basic income program.
President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate change pact probably insures that his administration will not back the CLC proposal, despite some apparent initial interest, and it’s far from clear that Congress would go along even if Trump warmed to the idea. For the left, though, vigorously backing BMI and linking its initial funding to a carbon tax could be transformative, allowing it to edge away from the incessant fight for any and all jobs, no matter how nasty and ill-paid. It would be a policy that addresses both the future’s problems and its potential, rather than the kind of sterile defense of the past we’re seeing all too much of these days.
Sarah Miller is a thinker, writer and editor with experience as a journalist in Brussels, Washington, London and New York. She now lives in Camden, Maine, and is active with the local philosophical society, annual Camden Conference on foreign policy issues, gardening and piano.