Just give people money!

JDN 2457332 EDT 17:02.

Today is the Fifth of November, on which a bunch of people who liked a Hollywood movie start posting images in support of a fanatical religious terrorist in his plot to destroy democracy in the United Kingdom a few centuries ago. It’s really weird, but I’m not particularly interested in that.

Instead I’d like to talk about the solution to poverty, which we’ve known for a long time—in fact, it’s completely obvious—and yet have somehow failed to carry out. Many people doubt that it even works, not based on the empirical evidence, but because it just feels like it can’t be right, like it’s so obvious that surely it was tried and didn’t work and that’s why we moved on to other things. When you first tell a kindergartner that there are poor people in the world, that child will very likely ask: “Why don’t we just give them some money?”

Why not indeed?

Formally this is called a “direct cash transfer”, and it comes in many different variants, but basically they run along a continuum from unconditional—we just give it to everybody, no questions asked—to more and more conditional—you have to be below a certain income, or above a certain age, or have kids, or show up at our work program, or take a drug test, etc. The EU has a nice little fact sheet about the different types of cash transfer programs in use.

Actually, I’d argue that at the very far extreme is government salaries—the government will pay you $40,000 per year, provided that you teach high school every weekday. We don’t really think of that as a “conditional cash transfer” because it involves you providing a useful service (and is therefore more like an ordinary, private-sector salary), but many of the conditions imposed on cash transfers actually have this sort of character—we want people to do things that we think are useful to society, in order to justify us giving them the money. It really seems to be a continuum, from just giving money to everyone, to giving money to some people based on them doing certain things, to specifically hiring people to do something.

Social programs in different countries can be found at different places on this continuum. In the United States, our programs are extremely conditional, and also the total amount we give out is relatively small. In Europe, programs are not as conditional—though still conditional—and they give out more. And sure enough, after-tax poverty in Europe is considerably lower, even though before-tax poverty is about the same.

In fact, the most common way to make transfers conditional is to make them “in-kind”; instead of giving you money, we give you something—healthcare, housing, food. Sometimes this makes sense; actually I think for healthcare it makes the most sense, because price signals don’t work in a market as urgent and inelastic as healthcare (that is, you don’t shop around for an emergency room—in fact, people don’t even really shop around for a family doctor). But often it’s simply a condition we impose for political reasons; we don’t want those “lazy freeloaders” to do anything else with the money that we wouldn’t like, such as buying alcohol or gambling. Even poor people in India buy into this sort of reasoning. Nevermind that they generally don’t do that, or that they could just shift away spending they would otherwise be making (warning: technical economics paper within) to do those things anyway—it’s the principle of the thing.

Direct cash transfers not only work—they work about as well as the best things we’ve tried. Spending on cash transfers is about as cost-effective as spending on medical aid and malaria nets.

Other than in experiments (the largest of which I’m aware of was a town in Canada, unless you count Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend, which is unconditional but quite small), we have never really tried implementing a fully unconditional cash transfer system. “Too expensive” is usually the complaint, and it would indeed be relatively expensive (probably greater than all of what we currently spend on Social Security and Medicare, which are two of our biggest government budget items). Implementing a program with a cost on the order of $2 trillion per year is surely not something to be done lightly. But it would have one quite substantial benefit: It would eliminate poverty in the United States immediately and forever.

This is why I really like the “abolish poverty” movement; we must recognize that at our current level of economic development, poverty is no longer a natural state, a complex problem to solve. It is a policy decision that we are making. We are saying, as a society, that we would rather continue to have poverty than spend that $2 trillion per year, about 12% of our $17.4 trillion GDP. We are saying that we’d rather have people who are homeless and starving than lose 12 cents of every dollar we make. (To be fair, if we include the dynamic economic impact of this tax-and-transfer system it might actually turn out to be more than that; but it could in fact be less—the increased spending would boost the economy, just as the increased taxes would restrain it—and seems very unlikely to be more than 20% of GDP.)

For most of human history—and in most countries today—that is not the case. India could not abolish poverty immediately by a single tax policy; nor could China. Probably not Brazil either. Maybe Greece could do it, but then again maybe not. But Germany could; the United Kingdom could; France could; and we could in the United States. We have enough wealth now that with a moderate increase in government spending we could create an economic floor below which no person could fall. It is incumbent upon us at the very least to justify why we don’t.

I have heard it said that poverty is not a natural condition, but the result of human action. Even Nelson Mandela endorsed this view. This is false, actually. In general, poverty is the natural condition of all life forms on Earth (and probably all life forms in the universe). Natural selection evolves us toward fitting as many gene-packages into the environment as possible, not toward maximizing the happiness of the sentient beings those gene-packages may happen to be. To a first approximation, all life forms suffer in poverty.

We live at a unique time in human history; for no more than the last century—and perhaps not even that—we have actually had so much wealth that we could eliminate poverty by choice. For hundreds of thousands of years human beings toiled in poverty because there was no such choice. Perhaps good policy in Greece could end poverty today, but it couldn’t have during the reign of Pericles. Good policy in Italy could end poverty now, but not when Caesar was emperor. Good policy in the United Kingdom could easily end poverty immediately, but even under Queen Victoria that wasn’t feasible.

Maybe that’s why we aren’t doing it? Our cultural memory was forged in a time decades or centuries ago, before we had this much wealth to work with. We speak of “end world hunger” in the same breath as “cure cancer” or “conquer death”, a great dream that has always been impossible and perhaps still is—but in fact we should speak of it in the same breath as “split the atom” and “land on the Moon”, seminal achievements that our civilization is now capable of thanks to economic and technological revolution.

Capitalism also seems to have a certain momentum to it; once you implement a market economy that maximizes wealth by harnessing self-interest, people seem to forget that we are fundamentally altruistic beings. I may never forget that economist who sent me an email with “altruism” in scare quotes, as though it was foolish (or at best imprecise) to say that human beings care about one another. But in fact we are the most altruistic species on Earth, without question, in a sense so formal and scientific it can literally be measured quantitatively.

There are real advantages to harnessing self-interest—not least, I know my own interests considerably better than I know yours, no matter who you are—and that is part of how we have achieved this great level of wealth (though personally I think science, democracy, and the empowerment of women are the far greater causes of our prosperity). But we must not let it forget us why we wanted to have wealth in the first place: Not to concentrate power in a handful of individuals who will pass it on to their heirs; not to “maximize work incentives”; not to give us the fanciest technological gadgets. The reason we wanted to have wealth was so that we could finally free ourselves from the endless toil that was our lot by birth and that of all other beings—to let us finally live, instead of merely survive. There is a peak to Maslow’s pyramid, and we could stand there now, together; but we must find the will to give up that 12 cents of every dollar.

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