At Bloomberg Satyajit Das is skeptical of a universal basic income:
UBI would allow for the introduction by stealth of “helicopter money,” a controversial proposal for central banks to print money and distribute it to consumers to boost growth and inflation. The idea covers a wide range of policies including the permanent monetization of budget deficits and direct transfers to households financed with base money.
Friedman outlined the concept in his 1969 parable of dropping money from a helicopter. If everyone is convinced that this is a unique, non-repeatable event, then it is assumed they will spend the money, increasing economic activity. The concept generated revived interest in recent years as a means of preventing deflation.
There’s a telling link between universal basic income and modern monetary theory, an unconventional economic approach that’s been gaining ground with politicians. MMT, loosely, argues that a state cannot go bankrupt where it can print its currency – a version of the argument that deficits don’t matter. Under MMT, governments should borrow and spend when demand is inadequate to move the economy to full employment. It provides theoretical cover for governments to issue debt to central banks in greater amounts than hitherto contemplated. This can then finance spending programs – such as a universal basic income – to maintain economic activity.
Whether a guaranteed minimum income can produce economic recovery is questionable, though. It’s a repackaging of existing approaches that have had limited effectiveness. There’s little new in central banks financing governments via QE or fiscal stimulus, including welfare spending. It doesn’t address key structural issues such as excessive debt, imbalances, wage levels and demographics. Adoption of such an approach would also mean the economy becomes dependent on government intervention to sustain activity.
A universal basic income financed by helicopter money may perversely increase uncertainty. Ordinary people may react to unlimited money printing by shutting their wallets and hoarding. Australia’s recent “cash back” program, which provided up to A$1,080 ($740) to taxpayers earning less than A$126,000, doesn’t appear to have offset pessimism about the outlook.
As H. L. Mencken put it there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong. Shortly after Thomas More first proposed the idea more than five hundred years ago, it was pointed out that one of the effects of such a plan would be to increase prices, that is, you’ve also got to increase production for such a plan to be effective in alleviating poverty.
However, as Mr. Das concludes the “lure of a painless and easy solution” for poverty will prove to be irresistible and UBI will continue to raise its head periodically for the foreseeable future.