Will a guaranteed income ever come to America?

BY Felix Oberholzer-Gee  April 7, 2014 at 4:25 PM EDT
Could America ever seriously entertain a guaranteed basic income? Above, members of 'Generation Basic Income' in Switzerland post with 8 million Swiss coins after securing a ballot referendum on an uncondition basic income. Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images.

Could America ever seriously entertain a guaranteed basic income? Above, members of ‘Generation Basic Income’ in Switzerland stand with 8 million Swiss coins after securing a ballot referendum on an unconditional basic income. Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images.

Editor’s Note: When activists in Switzerland dumped 8 million Swiss coins – one for each citizen – in front of the Parliament building in Bern last fall, the rest of the world took notice. Not just because it was a compelling publicity stunt, but because the activists secured enough signatures to get a referendum on an unconditional basic income on the ballot. If it’s adopted as part of the Swiss constitution, citizens, regardless of whether they work, would receive 30,000 Swiss Francs (about $34,000) a year.

The idea has intellectual legs, at least, in the United States with renewed support from the political left and right. Hear some of those voices, including libertarian economist Charles Murray, in our Making Sen$e report below.

The conservatives we spoke to would replace all other social welfare programs with a guaranteed basic income to make government aid more self-directed and efficient. Some on the right support a slightly different guaranteed minimum income as a means-tested form of public assistance. Many liberals see the guaranteed income as a tool to combat economic inequality, which, by most accounts, is far more extreme in America than in Europe.

But adopting a measure similar to the one in Switzerland – let alone putting it to a popular vote – in America is still widely considered a far-flung idea. Here to explain why this kind of wealth redistribution is much more palatable in more economically equal countries like Switzerland is someone familiar with both societies: Swiss native and Harvard Business School professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee. He also appears in the Making Sen$e segment on Monday night.

Will a guaranteed income pass in Switzerland? He’d be surprised if it did — and even more surprised if the idea ever seriously took root in America.

Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor


In Western Europe, there is a lively debate about proposals to guarantee every citizen a basic income. The idea, which has a long history dating back to the 1920s (at least), is increasingly popular in policy circles and the broader population. The German and Spanish parliaments explored it. The Swiss will soon vote on an initiative that would guarantee everyone $2,800 each month — no questions asked, irrespective of whether a person works. Early polls indicate that more than 45 percent of Swiss voters will support the initiative.

The supporters of a guaranteed income are a varied lot. They range from unreconstructed communists to humanists with a strong sense of dignity and the wealthy. One concern that many of them share, however, is the global rise in income inequality. In the past few decades, economic growth lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. But, at the same time, the distribution of income became increasingly skewed in favor of wealthy individuals.

The current situation is exceptional from a historical point of view. For example, the top 10 percent of earners in the U.S. captured 35 percent of income through the 1950s and 1960s. Today, this share stands at 50 percent. Rising inequality reflects gains at the top in all sources of income: salaries and business income, as well as capital income and capital gains.

There are many reasons why income inequality has risen. One is technology, which tends to benefit the well-educated. Machines increasingly take over routine tasks, leaving low-paid service jobs for unskilled workers. As a result, U.S. employment and wages tend to grow at the very bottom and at the very top of the distribution in skills. The middle is hollowed out.

Import competition from poorer countries is a second reason. Chinese imports, for example, explain about one quarter of the decline in U.S. manufacturing from 1990 to 2007.

Third, globalization produces so-called superstar effects. In a flat world, top talent is handsomely rewarded for its broad appeal. The Brazilian soccer player Pelé, the best ever, earned $1.1 million in 1960 (adjusted for inflation). The Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo made $17 million this past year. Pelé played for 350,000 television sets in Brazil. At the most recent World Cup, 700 million people watched Ronaldo, as Eduardo Porter writes in “The Price of Everything.”

While rising income inequality is a global phenomenon, it is perhaps surprising to see that radical redistribution is more extensively debated in Europe than in the United States. After all, income inequality is greater in the U.S. than in Europe, and it is growing faster in America too. Comparing the incomes of the top 20 percent to the bottom 20 percent, this ratio stands at 4.0 in Sweden, 4.3 in Germany and 5.6 in France. With a ratio of 8.4, the U.S. is in a different league, more similar to Kenya (8.2), Ghana (8.4), and Nicaragua (8.8). So why is there far more demand for redistribution in Western Europe?

Beliefs about the reasons for inequality turn out to be important. According to the World Values Survey, 60 percent of Americans believe that the poor could become rich if they just tried hard enough. In Europe, however, the number of individuals who hold similar beliefs is only half as large. In Brazil, a mere 19 percent believe that poverty stems from laziness rather than circumstances, connections and luck.

Beliefs about the reasons for poverty are critical for the willingness to redistribute income. People like to be generous if they think the poor are deserving of their support. But they have a strong aversion to giving if they suspect the less fortunate do not try hard to escape their circumstances.

These differences in beliefs give rise to two policy regimes: one with little redistribution and low taxes, the United States, and one with a greater demand for redistribution, Europe.

There is evidence in both places for these dynamics. As U.S. tax rates fell, the top income share rose, not only because the affluent paid less, but also because it makes sense to bargain harder for improved remuneration in a lower-tax environment. Meanwhile, in Europe, people are justified in thinking that “luck” (in the form of being born to the right parents) is an increasingly important determinant of income. From 1820 to 1910, inheritances made up 20-25 percent of disposable income in France. This share fell to 5 percent in the early part of the 20th century. Today, France is back to where it was 100 years ago. This return of inherited wealth is a far weaker dynamic in the United States.

So, will Europe provide a guaranteed income to its citizens? My personal view is that this is unlikely. The Swiss in particular (most of whom are temperamentally risk averse) are too practical to turn into strong proponents of radical redistribution. Differences in beliefs about the reasons for income inequality, however, will continue to drive redistributive policies.