Andrew Yang, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, has revived the debate on Universal Basic Income (UBI) with his proposed “Freedom Dividend.” His plan is to offer an alternative to the modern means-tested welfare state with one simple program to pay $1,000 per month, or $12,000 per year, to every American adult over the age of 18.
Yang has already received a thorough response from Gonzalo Schwarz. Though Schwarz’s response contributes important insights—such as the insignificance of technology replacing jobs, the self-worth that work brings, and the likelihood of a UBI supplementing rather than replacing welfare—I would like to contribute some further insights that more directly address the economic errors of Yang’s arguments.
His Argument Is Misleading
First, let’s look at the funding. Yang says his 10 percent Value Added Tax (VAT) would raise $800 billion per year, save $600 billion per year from the costs of other welfare programs, save $200 billion per year from reducing the demand on health care services and incarceration, and eventually raise $600 billion extra per year from economic growth.
There is an even deeper flaw in the argument that the UBI would expand the economy.
Before the economic growth (which would not actually happen as I explain below), he has only $1.6 trillion of funds. Even after his expected economic growth, he will have only $2.2 trillion of funds per year, still far from the $2.8 trillion required excluding bureaucracy (234 million people 18+ at $12,000 per year). Yang never mentions debt as a means for payment, but his own math doesn’t add up.
Yang is also deceiving in his argument about the program’s impact on the economy. He cites a paper by the Roosevelt Institute that finds, at $12,000 per year, UBI would expand the economy by 12.56 percent over eight years. However, the 12.56 percent growth is under a scenario of a completely debt-financed program. The study admits that a completely tax-funded program would result in a 6.5 percent growth over eight years. Since Yang's program is mostly tax-funded, it is highly deceiving to claim economic growth of 12.56 percent.
However, there is an even deeper flaw in the argument that the UBI would expand the economy. It rests on the assumption that consumption spending grows the economy and drives production.
Does Consumption Grow the Economy?
The argument goes like this: By transferring money from those who save money to those who have a higher propensity to consume, there will be more spending on consumption goods such as food and clothing. This, in turn, will give an income to the shop owners who will spend their new profits on other consumption goods. And the circulating money creates more economic activity for the macroeconomy.
Transferring money from savers to consumers, as Yang’s UBI hopes to do, does not grow the economy in the long run—it has the opposite effect.
The “propensity to consume” as the cause of economic growth is a common Keynesian notion. But it’s dreadfully wrong. First, it is important to recognize that economic growth is not when everyone gets more money. Economic growth occurs when an economy produces more valuable goods. And what causes this? Capital goods.
Capital goods are the previously-produced goods that are used in the production process and that improve the productivity of workers and the general economy. The use of hammers and nails, for example, greatly improves a construction worker’s ability to build a house. Capital goods are created through savings and investment—the opposite of consumption. Without investment funded by savings, the production of capital goods will slow, causing economic growth to slow.
It may be argued that no one argues for 100 percent consumption spending and that since an individual business will be getting more money, they will be better able to afford more capital goods. But this argument still ignores how the capital goods were produced in the first place.
To create capital goods, someone in the past must have put aside resources to use for a line of production that would not create immediate value. To create a hammer, someone has to save and invest resources into mining iron ore, which then requires resources to smelt into steel. Someone must also have invested resources into tree-cutting for the wood to create the handle. Each of these projects, in turn, required resources for its production process.
In order to have economic growth, there must be a sacrifice of current consumption in order to fund the creation of capital goods.
All of these steps required the production of goods that did not serve any immediate consumption value. The steel and the wood are only a means of creating a hammer, which is itself a means of creating houses and other consumer goods.
The final consumption good, however, would not be possible without someone in the past saving resources to be used for a line of production that was not immediately serviceable but used for the production of capital goods.
In order to have economic growth—to expand production—there must be a sacrifice of current consumption in order to fund the creation of capital goods. Transferring money from savers to consumers, as Yang’s UBI hopes to do, does not grow the economy in the long run—it has the opposite effect.
Efficient Employment, Not Enjoyable Employment
A common argument against UBI is that it will incentivize people not to look for work. Yang answers this criticism, saying that $12,000 per year will still not be a good enough living for most people, so people will still be incentivized to get jobs and contribute to production.
However, there are still marginal effects at play that can add up to huge changes: 1) It decreases the incentive for workers to quickly find new employment once they’re out of a job, and 2) it decreases their sensitivity to income differences between jobs.
A UBI would skew choices towards enjoyable work rather than efficient or productive work.
The increased time between jobs means there will be lower employment at any given time and, therefore, less production. And the decreased sensitivity to higher incomes means people will be more likely to do less productive work for the sake of enjoyment. While it may be desirable for workers to balance their income needs and their work preferences, a UBI would skew choices towards enjoyable work rather than efficient or productive work. Yang even admits this: “UBI increases art production, nonprofit work and caring for loved ones.”
While these may be admirable activities, Yang is forgetting to consider the opportunity costs associated with them. While people will be more inclined to make art, write novels, and work less, the amount of needed goods in society will decline. This may be a worthwhile tradeoff to some, but when the main stated goal is to help those in poverty, producing less clothing and food is not going to achieve the desired ends.
Andrew Yang does bring up some admirable points about a UBI avoiding the welfare cliff and reducing bureaucracy. However, the overall greater expansion of the government, the even more massive resource transfer from savers to consumers, and the productivity-reducing effects on labor all toll to a huge loss for the economy in the long run.