Ross Douthat on Basic Income Again (sort of)

“At the same time, though, the design of Obamacare—Medicaid expansion, subsidies for comprehensive rather than catastrophic coverage, and then the way the subsidy disappears if you get a raise or take a higher-paying job—makes the work disincentive much more substantial than it would be under, say, a conservative alternative that offers everyone a flat credit to buy a catastrophic plan.”

Ross Douthat, “Leaving Work Behind,” New York Times, February 8, 2014.

In yet another column, Ross Douthat argues against basic income without saying what it is or explaining why anyone might be for it. The context is the CBO’s recent report on the labor supply effect of Obamacare. Douthat is concerned that liberals are giving up on the inherent dignity of work by decoupling access to affordable healthcare and employment. I was preparing to write a full-blown response, but two things stopped me.

First, the vast majority of the online comments have already done an exemplary job of calling him on the ridiculous assumption that all paid work, including poverty-level jobs with ever shifting hours and schedules, promises “dignity, mobility and social equality.”

Second, his critique of Obamacare’s supposed work disincentives, excerpted above, is exactly why basic income advocates like me argue for a flat grant basic income over a negative income tax—not to mention a reason to prefer universal health care to the private insurance-based Obamacare (but that’s another post). To keep work incentives as strong as possible at the lower end of the income scale, benefits phase-outs and taxes should be as low as possible, which is exactly what a flat grant basic income does. Instead, the programs we have now—TANF, SSI, SNAP, and the EITC—all have steep phase-outs designed to restrict them to the very poor, penalizing the working poor financially when they begin to earn a little more.

Like people hearing about basic income for the first time, Douthat assumes it is a substitute for work, rather than an economically secure foundation upon which work can build. But Douthat has written about basic income before in exactly the same disingenuous way. I welcome his contributions to the debate on a policy alternative that is getting more and more attention these days, even if he disagrees with it. But if he really wants to understand, or wants his readers to understand, how a basic income works, maybe next time he can include a link in his column to one of the many sites that explains it honestly. Here’s one of the links he left out.