The Architecture of a Basic Income
86 Pages Posted: 8 Mar 2019 Last revised: 11 May 2020
Date Written: February 1, 2019
The notion of a universal basic income (“UBI”) has captivated academics, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and ordinary citizens in recent months. Pilot studies of a UBI are underway or in the works on three continents. And prominent voices from across the ideological spectrum have expressed support for a UBI or one of its variants, including libertarian Charles Murray, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, labor leader Andy Stern, and — most recently — former President Barack Obama. Although even the most optimistic advocates for a UBI will acknowledge that nationwide implementation lies years away, the design of a basic income will require sustained scholarly attention. This article seeks to advance the conversation among academics and policymakers about UBI implementation.
Our prior work has focused on the philosophical foundations of a basic income; here, we build up from those foundations to identify the practical building blocks of a large-scale cash transfer program. After canvassing the considerations relevant to the design of a UBI, we arrive at a set of specific recommendations for policymakers. We propose a UBI of $6000 per person per year, paid to all citizens and lawful permanent residents via direct deposit in biweekly installments. We argue — contrary to other UBI proponents — that children and seniors should be included, that adjustments for household size and cost of living should be rejected, that recipients should have a limited ability to use future payments as collateral for short- and medium-term loans, and that the Social Security Administration should carry out the program. We also explain how a UBI could be financed through the consolidation of existing cash and near-cash transfer programs as well as the imposition of a relatively modest surtax on all earners.
Importantly, the building blocks of a UBI do not necessarily determine its outward face. By this, we mean that economically identical programs can be described in very different ways — e.g., as a UBI with no phaseout, a UBI that phases out with income, and a “negative income tax” — without altering any of the essential features. To be sure, packaging matters to the public perception of a UBI, and we consider reasons why some characterizations of the program may prove more popular than others. Our article seeks to sort the building blocks of a UBI out from the cosmetic components, thereby clarifying which elements of a UBI shape implementation and which ones affect only the outward appearance.
Keywords: basic income, universal basic income, UBI, cash transfers, negative income tax
JEL Classification: K34, H53
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation