Loss of support for guaranteed income reflects radical shift in values

Original Reporting | By Mike AlbertiKevin C. Brown |

When the credit rating agency Standard and Poor’s (S&P) downgraded the rating of U.S. Treasury bonds in 2011, there were widespread efforts to “reassure the markets” that the government would cut spending. In the response of one Treasury Department official at the time, it was taken as a given that policy makers would respond to the pressures of the market.

“There’s not a general feeling that the government is us and is here to serve us,” said Marisa Chappell of Oregon State University.

“S.& P.’s negative outlook underestimates the ability of America’s leaders to come together to address the difficult fiscal challenges facing the nation,” the official said.

Alice O’Connor of UCSB explained that when the primary goal of elected officials is seen as serving the interests of the market instead of the interests of citizens, arguments for policies such as a GAI that appeal to the broader social good carry less weight.

 Additionally, O’Connor said, as the perception has grown that the market provides for the public good, more policy makers appear to believe that the role for government should shrink. That, too, makes it more difficult to justify policies — like a guaranteed income — that would require a central role for the federal government, she said.

“If you’ve bought into the notion that the market is the only thing that is going to produce welfare, what role is there for the government?” O’Connor said.

That ideology was clearly on display in 2002 when President George W. Bush gave a speech honoring the conservative economist Milton Friedman.  What Bush had learned from Friedman, he said, was that “[i]n contrast to the free market’s invisible hand, which improves the lives of people, the government’s invisible foot tramples on people’s hopes and destroys their dreams.”


Invisible benefits

One reason for this shift in ideology, according to Linda Gordon of New York University, is that while the benefits that people received from the government were very visible during the New Deal era, they became increasingly opaque over time, in part by implementing an increasing amount of social policy through the tax code. The result, she said, is that “much of the so-called welfare state is invisible to the people that receive its benefits. When we have a harder time saying, ‘Look, this is what the government does,’ we have a harder time asking, ‘What else should it do?’”

According to Chappell, another result of the invisibility of government benefits, is that instead of being understood as a collective enterprise of citizens, the government has increasingly been seen as something “foreign” or “separate” from citizens.“There’s not a general feeling that the government is us and is here to serve us,” she said.

The labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, shown here in 1964, proposed a “Freedom Budget” two years later that supported a guaranteed annual income.

Chappell pointed to a widely-publicized remark by a protester in 2009 that said, “Take your government hands off my Medicare!”

That rhetoric contrasts starkly with the vision of government that President Johnson put forward in a campaign speech in 1964.

“And when we say as a Nation ‘In God We Trust,’ this doesn’t mean everybody for himself and the devil takes the hindmost,” Johnson said.

“Government is not the end of people,” he continued. “Government, prudent government, responsible government, is the people, and that is what this election is all about, the responsibility of people, acting together, to keep prosperity here at home.”

The widespread support for GAI proposals in the 1960s and 1970s depended on the broadly shared perception that the government existed to serve the interests of citizens.

But, McCluskey said, the sense of the government as being a foreign entity and the sense of the market as being a natural, inviolable force have created the perception that, “no matter how good our intentions are, it would be futile to try and control the market or shape it in any way.”

“That’s an unbelievably disempowering way of thinking,” she added.

Gordon agreed. “That disempowerment is a huge obstacle to proposing something like a guaranteed income today,” she said. “It would require that people admit that the market is failing to produce the best outcomes, and then also to admit that the problem of poverty requires a collective solution. That’s a pretty heavy load.”


Justice for all

In calling for a guaranteed income, advocates in the 1960s and 1970s frequently appealed to the widespread sense that there was something “unjust” about the presence of poverty in a rich society.

For example, the “Freedom Budget” proposed by the civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph in 1966 demanded a GAI because of “the inescapable fact that an economy as rich and powerful as ours cannot countenance widespread deprivation, much less widespread poverty.”

“One thought about justice in terms of the broader community,” Daniel Rodgers of Princeton said. “There was a sense that a just society would produce at least a measure of dignity for every member, so one also talked about justice in terms of equality.”

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