Tag Archives: Germany

Watch This Experiment!

Germany has begun an intriguing experiment. For a period of three years, a  group of people will get €1,200 a month. (At today’s exchange rate, that’s $1,420.) The money is free; the only  requirement is that recipients answer researchers’ questions about what they’re doing with this unconditional income.

As German media has reported,

Officials from the Mein Grundeinkommen (My Basic Income) charity are convinced that an unconditional income for all citizens would solve many current problems. The assumption is that people get more creative and become freer and happier if they don’t constantly face the pressure to earn enough money to get by.

Whether this lives up to reality will be explored scientifically during the project. “We’ll analyze what people are doing during a period of guaranteed material security,” project chief Jürgen Schupp from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) told DW.

Among the questions he’ll look into are: Will the test persons spend all the money or will they save a certain amount? Will they stop working altogether or work less? Also, will they donate money to others?

The experiment will give his team all the answers it needs, says Schupp. Even changes in people’s stress levels can be identified with the help of hair samples, he argues.

During the primaries, Andrew Yang brought the issue into more prominence, but the debate about UBI–an unconditional basic income– has been going on for years. The debate centers on dramatically different predictions of what people will do when they don’t have to do anything. Will receipt of a basic income make people lazy, make them less  apt to work, less productive? Or is a UBI a tool to rationalize current  social  welfare systems (and not-so-incidentally, prepare for an era when automation has eliminated millions  of jobs)?

I  have been  intrigued by  what I see as the promise of a UBI.

What if the United States embraced a new social contract, beginning with the premise that all citizens are valued members of the American polity, and that (as the advertisement says) membership has its privileges? Contracts are by definition mutual undertakings, agreements in which both sides offer consideration. In my imagined “Brave New World,” government would create an environment within which humans could flourish, an environment within which members of the polity would be guaranteed a basic livelihood, a substantive education and an equal place at the civic table. In return, members (aka citizens) would pay their “dues:” taxes, a stint of public/civic service, and the consistent discharge of civic duties like voting and jury service.

With a UBI (in contrast to welfare) there would be no phase-out, no marriage penalties, no people falsifying information, no daunting (and expensive) bureaucracy.

Support for the concept hasn’t been limited to liberals and progressives. Milton Friedman famously proposed a “negative income tax,” and F.A. Hayek, the libertarian economist, wrote “There is no reason why in a free society government should not assure to all, protection against severe deprivation in the form of an assured minimum income, or a floor below which nobody need descend.” In 2016, Samuel Hammond of the libertarian Niskanen Center, noted the “ideal” key features of a UBI: its unconditional structure avoids creating poverty traps; it sets a minimum income floor, raising worker bargaining power without wage or price controls; it decouples benefits from a particular workplace or jurisdiction; since it’s cash, it respects a diversity of needs and values; and it simplifies and streamlines a complex web of bureaucracy, eliminating rent seeking and other sources of inefficiency.

Hammond’s point about worker bargaining power is especially important. In today’s economy, characterized by dramatically-diminished unions and the growth of “gig work,”  employee bargaining power has dramatically eroded. Wages  have been effectively stagnant for years, despite significant growth in productivity. In 2018, Pew Research reported that “today’s real average wage (that is, the wage after accounting for inflation) has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago.

If the U.S. had a UBI and single-payer  health  insurance, workers would have the freedom to leave abusive employers, unsafe work conditions, and uncompetitive pay scales. A UBI wouldn’t level the playing field, but it would certainly reduce the tilt. It’s also worth noting that a UBI would have much the same positive effect on economic growth as a higher minimum wage. When poor people get money, they spend it, increasing demand.

Previous experiments and pilot projects have been encouraging;  receipt of a  guaranteed basic  income has not caused people  to stop working, and the money hasn’t  been used  for liquor and sin. Germany’s experiment looks to be larger than the others that have been reported, and it will be interesting to see its results.

Excellent Analogies

Thanks to my lack of technical skills, some of you may have received a link to this previously. (Don’t ask….)

This misbegotten administration has spawned humor as well as despair–not only are satirists and comedians having a field day, but recently, as Trump’s disastrous, fumbling response to the pandemic continues to endanger us all, pundits and others have looked for explanatory analogies to our current predicament.

The “go to” analogy, of course, has been to Germany in the 1930s–mostly but not exclusively to Hitler. Max Boot–one of the “Never Trump” Republicans–went with a different  angle.

Boot recently penned a column for the Washington Post titled “If Trump Had Been In Charge In WWII, This Column Would Be in German.” (The headline reminded me of a cartoon I saw recently, showing American soldiers in WWII, with one of them saying to a comrade something along the lines of “Wouldn’t it be weird if 75 years from now, the Germans were the good guys and we were the threat?)”

As Boot very plausibly rewrote history, with Trump instead of FDR in charge:

Picture the scene a few months after Pearl Harbor. The first U.S. troops have arrived in England, and the Doolittle raiders have bombed Tokyo. But even though the war has just begun, the Trumpified FDR is already losing interest. One day he says the war is already won; the next day that we will just have to accept the occupation of France because that’s the way life is. He speculates that mobilization might be unnecessary if we can develop a “death ray” straight out of a Buck Rogers comic strip. He complains that rationing and curfews are very unpopular and will have to end soon. He tells the governors that if they want to keep on fighting, they will have to take charge of manufacturing ships, tanks and aircraft. Trumpy FDR prefers to hold mass rallies to berate his predecessor, Herbert Hoover. He even suggests that Hoover belongs in jail along with the leading Republican congressmen — “Martin, Barton and Fish.”

Probably the most compelling analogy I’ve seen, however, was on a Twitter thread my son shared on FaceBook. It was an effort to explain reality to the anti-mask “freedom fighters” who want the “liberty” to infect the rest of us. (I know it isn’t a “politically correct” thing to say, but if they were just endangering each other, I’d urge them on…)

At any rate, the tweeter- Jeremy TEST/TRACE/ISOLATE Konyndyk–analogized the virus to poop in the swimming pool. As he pointed out, when a kid poops in the water, which  happens a few times every summer, everyone clears the pool. “That’s the initial step to protect people from the poop.”

Then some poor soul on pool staff has to go fish out the poop. It’s a pretty thankless job.

Then they have to shock the pool with chlorine to kill off bacteria. And then everyone waits half and hour or so til it’s safe to swim again.

If the lifeguards tell everyone to clear the pool, but the pool staff declines to actually get rid of the poop, what happens? No one can go back in. The poop is still there. Limbo.

Whose fault is it that it’s not safe to go back in the water? Who is accountable?

Do you focus on the people saying “clean up the poop before we can go back in safely!”? Or do you focus on the staff whose job it is to clean up the poop? And what would you think if the staff started saying – look, just get back in. Be a warrior.

As Jeremy points out, right now America is a big swimming pool with a poop problem and a President who– rather than clean up the poop– is urging everyone back into the pool. According to him, the *real* problem is those people who think the pool’s not safe yet. They must hate the pool.

The President’s whole play here is to distract from his failure to fix the mess by focusing the country’s attention on people who don’t want to swim in a pooped-in pool.

He wants you to believe they’re saying you should never go back in. And if you buy that, he’s off the hook. He doesn’t have to clean up the poop, and he doesn’t get blamed for failing to do so. Win-win for him.

But NO ONE is saying “never go back in the pool.” They’re saying – please clean out the poop first.

It’s an analogy even the limited intellects who are demanding the “freedom” to ignore everyone else’s rights ought to understand. But I’m not holding my breath…


Other Than Voting Blue, What Can Good People Do?

A recent article in The Guardian reminded me of a long-ago discussion with my mother.

The article was about a Japanese trader named Chiune Sugihara, who saved the lives of 6,000 Jews during the second World War.

Over six weeks in the summer of 1940, while serving as a diplomat in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara defied orders from his bosses in Tokyo, and issued several thousand visas for Jewish refugees to travel to Japan.

The discussion with my mother followed a television show about the Holocaust, and the German citizens who stayed silent while their Jewish neighbors were subjected, first, to official demonization, then required to wear yellow stars, then deprived of their businesses, and finally dragged from their homes and transported to death camps. My mother declared that she would not have been one of those who pretended not to see–that she would have resisted, even at the risk of her own life and the lives of her family. I remember responding that I wished I could be so sure that I would do the right thing.

At the time, of course, it was all hypothetical.

Suddenly, it isn’t.

We need to recognize that we’re at the beginning of what threatens to become a very dark time in America. Under Trump, we already see (brown) children in cages; we already see the deliberate encouragement of white nationalism, and the demonization of immigrants, Muslims, and “others”; we already see reckless and dangerous foreign adventurism; we already see disdain for–and noncompliance with– longstanding democratic norms and the rule of law; and we already see  concerted, persistent attacks on the media outlets that report these things.

We don’t face the equivalent of SS troops in the streets (although it is worth noting that a number of Trump supporters have threatened civil war should he lose in November), so the costs of activism are minuscule in comparison to the risks run by people like Sugahari or Schindler.

Several commenters to yesterday’s post made a valid point: the time for sharing dismay is over and the time for action is here.

The question is: what does that action look like?

I am assuming that most Americans appalled by what is happening are already working to get out the vote–volunteering for candidates, bringing lawsuits to counter the GOP’s constant efforts to disenfranchise people who might vote Democratic, calling their Senators and Representatives, writing letters to the editor and posting opinions on blogs and social media. I hope–but do not know–that marches and demonstrations are being planned; if they are, even old folks like me will participate.

Yet none of this seems adequate to the challenge.

I ended yesterday’s post with a question asking readers to characterize the last decade. I will end this one with a far more important question: what should we be doing that we aren’t doing? What additional, specific actions can ordinary people take that will be effective? 

Our current situation is the result of the deterioration of democratic practices and civic participation that has been going on “under the radar” for a number of years. But I am convinced that, once the Trump administration made the consequences of that deterioration too visible to ignore, most Americans have been appalled. I continue to believe that–no matter how unAmerican the behavior of our federal government , no matter how contrary to our ideals and self-image– the majority of Americans are good people who do not and will not endorse policies grounded in stupidity, hatred and bigotry.

The question is: What are the concrete steps those good people can take to ensure that “it can’t happen here”?