Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dividends For All? Sounds Like Something Bucky Fuller Would Suggest

Financial journalist Peter Barnes has a new book out called With Liberty and Dividends For All: How To Save Our Middle Class When Jobs Don’t Pay Enough. Based on Alternet's Interview With Barnes, the basic proposal boils down to making corporations pay for their use of the commons (although Barnes doesn't use that phrasing). As the article mentions, Alaska has been doing this for years with oil royalties on state land in the form of its Permanent Fund, which nets every Alaskan about a grand a year. In some cases, this kind of dividend system would mean making companies pay for commonly-held resources that they've previously gotten for free, but less controversially it could be done by charging market rates when companies exploit federal resources. For example, when they drill for oil on federal land (right now they pay at least 4% less than they would to drill on land owned by most states, half of what Texas would charge them), or when they use federal land for grazing, like Cliven Bundy (Nevada would have charged him $15 per cow per month, rather than the $1.35 he "patriotically" cheated taxpayers out of). And that's without bringing such obvious revenue enhancers as cutting out corporate subsidies that don't actually do any good, getting rid of discounts for capital gains, or closing tax loopholes.

Although Barnes doesn't say it, putting enough of this money into the federal fund could allow for every American to have a guaranteed basic income without even raising taxes. Those who believe in voodoo will of course point out that these extra costs incurred on companies will cause increased unemployment, because employment is tied to how much money the boss has lying around, not demand. But even if 30+ years of actual policy hadn't proven that theory wrong, such job losses are only a problem if you believe that full employment is a good thing. One of the key problems is that in order to have a society where everyone works, you have to have enough jobs for everyone who wants to work. One of the questions that futurists and economist of the past saw on the horizon was the time when technology made full employment an impossibility. Most naively or optimistically assumed that the immense financial gains brought about by such technology (much of it the result of innovations from publicly-funded research)would provide the funding for a guaranteed basic income, making toil* a choice rather than a necessity. Although things like outsourcing and trade policies like NAFTA may have gotten us there prematurely, we've reached the point where full employment is simply not possible in this country, even if everyone wanted to work at McDonald's. Unfortunately, we haven't prepared for it in a way that prevents those for whom there are simply no jobs from suffering in poverty. Maybe Barnes' suggestions are a step in the right direction. It's just a shame they'll never be implemented since our government is controlled by the tiny handful of Americans who would actually lose something if we asked people to compensate the people for their use of the commons.

 *I'm using the Utah Phillips definition here of Work=what you do for yourself; Toil=what you do for somebody else. The handful of experiments into guaranteed basic income suggest that people will continue to work even when they don't have to toil.
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