Forward Thinking: How Would You Design Our Social Safety Net?

I’ts that time of the month again! Head on over to Camels with Hammers to see Dan’s roundup of the posts written in response to his prompt on the ethics of cruelty two weeks ago, and with that said, it’s time to turn to our next Forward Thinking prompt.

This month I want to do something a little bit different. For this prompt, I want you to imagine that politics is no obstacle, and then explain how you would build our nation’s social safety net if you could start from scratch. (To give you some idea of where to go with this, our current social safety net comprises everything from Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare to welfare, unemployment, and food stamps to housing assistance, Head Start, and child tax credits.). I could ask you what you think is the purpose of a nation’s social safety net, or what duty we as citizens have to the other citizens of our nation, or what all you think should be the social safety net set up by the government and what should be in private hands, but I think this will be more interesting. I also want to avoid the perennial argument between conservatives and liberals about whether our welfare system enables people to be lazy or helps people out of poverty. Your beliefs about this should guide your answer. In answering this question, don’t assume that you are creating a social safety net for some ideal country. You’re creating it for our country as it is now, problems and all . (For those of you outside of the U.S., you can choose whether to answer this prompt for the U.S. or for your country.) Here is the prompt, put most simply:

If you were dictator-for-life, how would you design our social safety net, starting from scratch?

I want to invite readers to discuss this question in the comment section and to invite bloggers to respond on their own blogs. At the end of two weeks I will post a round-up of links and excerpts to both blog posts elsewhere and especially insightful comments here. Bloggers should email their links to lovejoyfeminism (at) gmail (dot) com with “Forward Thinking” in the subject line if they want to be included in the round-up.

Happy thinking and discussing!


Forward Thinking: A Values Development Project is an invitation to both readers and fellow bloggers to participate in forming positive values and grappling with thorny questions. Click here to read the project introduction.


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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • jasondick

    1. Get rid of (most) means testing. This basically means transforming welfare into a system where everybody, regardless of income, gets a set allowance that is enough to guarantee a base level of subsistence. Some may get additional money based upon disability or family size. Expanding this to include everybody removes the situation where a raise may cause a person to have less money by throwing them off of food stamps or welfare, and it also broadens the number of people who are invested in ensuring this program remains.
    2. Expand Medicare to cover everybody from birth.
    3. Have a national insurance program for paying maternity/paternity leave at near full pay for 3-6 months. Employers cannot be allowed to fire people for going on maternity/paternity leave.
    4. Subsidize higher education to the point that it is nearly free, i.e. somebody could attend higher education at a public university while living on the base subsistence guaranteed above.
    5. Subsidize daycare programs to the point that these, also, are nearly free.

    • Ortin

      I don’t think university programs should be nearly as subsidized as trade programs. If you promote university without promoting trades you get into an awkward bind where the government is paying you to learn how to paint or study history while I have to shell out and go on unemployment to learn how to wire your house for electricity.

      Then again, the stories I hear in Canada is that it’s obscenely easy to pay for trade school. Pogey applies, you see.

      • Christine

        In Canada it’s really easy to afford to learn the skilled trades – labour laws mandate that apprentices are paid. IF you can find a place that still takes apprentices. A lot of people have to go to college (community college) to do the beginning of their training, because it’s very difficult to get an apprenticeship. There are one or two companies that are basically training all the apprentices for my entire province. They’re stuck covering the cost of training everyone else’s workers. They get benefit from it – they’re the only companies without skilled worker shortages – but they’re understandably upset.

        I’d support a law that mandated that companies (over a certain size perhaps) be required to have a certain number of apprentice spots for every master tradesperson. Nothing over .5, and I’m not sure I’d be in favour of not rounding down (as that gets more difficult to keep track of). But this might also help with all the people who go to university who really should have gone into the trades instead. Just because you CAN graduate doesn’t mean it’s for you.

      • jasondick

        A general university education is *vastly* more important than a trade program. People with university degrees, first of all, get better pay. But perhaps more importantly, trade programs these days are often little more than scams.

      • Winifred

        I cannot overstate my disagreement with this comment.

        I am at an R1 U.S. university, and my research is in brain cancer, which (IMO) is an important field with real life implications for real people. That said, I recognize that my job is a luxury — societies that don’t have surplus can’t afford universities or research facilities where I do my work, don’t have citizens that can afford the treatments I work to develop, and frankly, have bigger fish to fry — like making sure their populace has essential skills and services. Universities are a luxury. Trade skills aren’t.

        People with university education get paid better, but that is due to societal judgement that office skills (say you got a BA is English and aren’t on the academic track…), or for that matter research skills, are worth more than trade skills, which is IMO is a severely flawed judgement (more on this in the next paragraph). Secondly, if everyone were to do high paying jobs, there would be no one to do low paying jobs and society would fall apart (think Georgia after they passed laws strict enough to make undocumented folks self-deport…). The solution is NOT to train more people to do high paying jobs, it’s to pay less for those jobs and more for ESSENTIAL, currently-low-paying jobs. Especially those with trade skills.

        A university may have prepared me for my job, but my job is no way, no how more important than that of any auto mechanic, electrician, or plumber. If we have no electricity, we have no air conditioning or heat, and more people will die of hypothermia or heatstroke in a year than brain cancer. If we don’t have good plumbers, diphtheria and other water borne illnesses become a huge concern, and will kill way more people than brain cancer. In fact, if we don’t have good plumbers, H. pylori becomes a problem, which means stomach cancer becomes a problem — so plumbers are doing as much or more to save people from cancer in this country as I am. If people don’t have vehicles — how does your food get to the supermarket? For people to eat, we need to transport food from farm to industrial production facility to market (or, in an ideal world, farm to market…) and that takes automotives which means auto mechanics. I assure you that if we can’t move food to cities, way more people will die of starvation in a year than die of brain cancer.

        So, while I think the value of a liberal arts education and an educated populace cannot be overstated, and while I would love to live in a society where all people, from day laborers on farms to medical doctors, from maids and custodians to plumbers to lawyers, had the chance to get a college degree… I consider that a luxury, and trade skills a necessity.

        Also, if the trade programs are scams, then it is the government’s job to regulate them, so that people are learning real, essential skills. It is silly to tell everyone to get a BA (which, while valuable, does not provide job skills) instead.

      • jasondick

        Society will fall apart? Um, no. The wage differential will simply reduce. This is a good thing.

        The large wage differential that exists is a result of a market failure: in this case a failure to supply enough highly-skilled people with university educations. These people are in high demand because they are far more productive workers than those without such educations (this isn’t to say that those without such educations don’t work hard, it’s just that they don’t have the tools to do as much with the work that they do).

      • Winifred

        Are you saying that I am a more productive worker than the janitor who cleans my lab? I disagree. We do different work that requires different skills, but our jobs require equal labor and equal time. My job requires more education, it’s true. but I’d say that it is less productive in terms of meeting daily needs of the populace, and also probably in terms of hours spent working.

        Also, this article, and the report it cites, would seem to definitively refute your claim that “The large wage differential that exists is a result of a market failure:
        in this case a failure to supply enough highly-skilled people with
        university educations,” with a counter-claim, supported by research, that we’re producing more college graduates than jobs requiring a college degree.

      • jasondick

        Yes, people with higher education and/or more working skills are more productive in the economic sense. And if you don’t like that, then increasing the average educational level will reduce wage disparities so that we end up valuing people with less education more.

        As for the supply picture, people at all educational levels have lower unemployment than those with less education. Much of the unemployment among recent graduates is a temporary result of the recent economic collapse and has already been reversed (though those people who graduated shortly after are likely to have permanently-reduced incomes due to a lack of government action).

        The fact that these businesses are hiring people with college degrees even though they don’t strictly need them is support for what I’m saying: we value those with degrees more than those without.

      • Winifred

        You are equating higher education to more working skills, which, as an educator in higher education, I must protest. We teach thinking, we teach analysis, we teach the cutting edge of science and literary criticism, we generate and disseminate new knowledge, and clearly I think this is valuable, or I wouldn’t be doing it.

        However, we do not teach job skills. If people would begin to realize that, things would be easier. You learn job skills in trade schools, in apprenticeships, in professional schools, on the job, in community colleges (accounting 101)… but not mostly in universities. The exception is if you intend to work in teaching or research.

        My understanding is that most of the jobs recovery has been in low-income, not middle class, jobs, and part-time rather than full-time work. In fact, it is probably due to fewer middle class jobs that more people see college as essential, because they want to have a fighting chance at one of them. A lot of times, they get debt instead.

        We should not value people with college degrees (or for that matter, high school diplomas) more than those without. There is no reason to do so.

        As for why people are hiring unemployed college graduates instead of unemployed high school graduates, I have an alternative explanation for you: Unemployed college graduates are more likely than not to be white and from middle class backgrounds. Unemployed young adults who never went to college are more likely than not to be not-white and from lower income backgrounds. Privilege (unfortunately) has it’s uses.

      • jasondick

        Your entire thesis is undercut by the fact that more education = more pay and lower unemployment.

        Increasing access to education will reduce the disparity in pay and unemployment.

      • Mobyseven

        That doesn’t undercut the thesis: it simply highlights that at the moment, the system is set up so that college graduates are more likely to be hired for higher income jobs. That doesn’t mean that college graduates are more productive or have better job skills; most charitably it could suggest that college graduates are *perceived* as having better job skills, and (as was mentioned above) there is more than likely a component of privilege involved (that could either be separate to, or play into, a perception of greater productivity and worth).

        Additionally, even if it were the case that a correlation between higher education and better pay/lower unemployment were completely explained by a higher perception of worth, that fails to address the question of whether or not this perception is accurate or justified.

        I happen to be a graduate student (in mathematics), I work my arse off, I love what I do, and I think it is extremely worthwhile: aesthetically, in terms of new knowledge produced, and in terms of educating undergraduates who require a background in mathematics for their (potential) future career (or just out of intellectual curiosity).

        But I don’t kid myself for a minute that people who have less formal education than me are somehow less productive than me. I’m certainly productive within the boundaries of my training and experience, and I wouldn’t expect someone without at least an undergraduate maths education to be able to follow all of what I do, let alone reproduce it. At the same time, however, if you asked me to install wiring, or do plumbing repairs, or work on a farm (to think of just three examples), I’d be lost — and even if I were to muddle through the process, my productivity wouldn’t be close to that of someone newly out of trade school (plumbing/electrician) or even just someone who had accrued on the job experience in “unskilled” labour (farm work). Additionally, the jobs performed by the electrician, plumber and farm labourer are probably *more* important to the everyday functioning of modern society than anything that I do.

        To look at the current difference in wages, then, and assume that it accurately reflects a difference in productivity or worth is rather wrongheaded. The world we live in did not evolve unguided towards a perfectly just system, and any attempt to move in that direction requires examination on our part — particularly those of us who are privileged enough to have spare time to do so.

      • jasondick

        The combination of lower unemployment and higher wages for those with better educations says more than that: it says that there are fewer people with higher educations than the market wants. It doesn’t even matter if this perception is justified or not.

        Furthermore, an economy with a larger quantity of people with higher educations is a more productive economy as a whole, so the net effect of improving education and increasing access to higher education is to increase average income across the entire economy (though it would probably decrease average income at the high end slightly, that’s a feature, not a bug).

      • Sam D

        I think the risk factor is being ignored. An investment in a longer education tends to reward those who take that risk – note the word tends; it is not a guarantee. The more time, effort, and money invested even in trade training, the more likely you are to be qualified for jobs that pay well enough to get you to take that risk. This falls down for PhDs for some reason, possibly because people who choose that path find education to be a good in itself.

        How well a job pays reflects rarity of both supply and demand, how un/pleasant the job is, how dangerous the job and how risky the training, how many people at a young age are motivated towards it, and many other factors. It doesn’t always have much to do with the job’s value to society.

        If it wasn’t that valuable to society, society wouldn’t pay, that’s true. But society doesn’t choose to pay more than it has to, even for a valuable service.

      • jasondick

        And lowering the monetary cost of education lowers its risk. Thus we end up with less wage disparity between those with and without educations (yay for less income inequality), and also have more people who have better educations and are thus better able to understand and react to the world around them.

      • kagerato

        The crucial fact that you’re missing here, jason, is that exponential systems do not grow forever. All systems everywhere in the real world that try to grow exponentially eventually crash. This applies as an absolute rule because there are finite resources. It’s especially obvious in biology and ecology, but it equally applies to economics and human societies.

        The idea that we can somehow solve everything just by repeatedly improving efficiency forever, constantly lowering the cost of education, the cost of skilled labor, the cost of products, and so on is fallacious and guaranteed to fail. The problems we’re encountering now as post-industrial societies in the 21st century are caused primarily _not_ by the recent financial collapse in 2007-2008 but by diminishing returns in technological development, energy efficiency, population growth, and several other major factors.

        It’s a rather sad truth, but we are already investing more money into higher education than society can actually support. That’s why student loans have grown to tremendous proportions in the United States. They’ve passed the trillion dollar mark. A trillion dollars in debt that cannot be discharged and is increasingly difficult to repay, because the educations and skills that were provided in exchange for funds are simply not being demanded by society at the levels necessary to justify the exponential growth.

        What Americans need to realize, and hopefully much sooner than later, is that we are where Japan was in the early 1990s today. If we continue to repeatedly invest more and more money — translating to exponentially more actual physical resources, time, and labor — into trying to build technological solutions to problems which are fundamentally social, economic, and political, then we are doomed to repeat exactly the same mistakes. We’re merely ensuring stagnation, running in place, and “lost decades”.

        Suppose that I’m wrong about the conditions we’re facing at this time. Even so, that only means I’m mistaken about now. Eventually, at some point in the future — and probably within our lifetimes — the limitations on exponential growth and efficiency gains WILL make themselves apparent in a way that no one can deny. The laws of physics don’t change, and they don’t lie, either. At that point, when the zeitgeist shifts again, we’re going to realize that we have to make decisions as a society as to what our priorities really are.

        What is it that we really want in a society, and life? Is it the constant rolling of technological change, maintenance, and replacement? Constant boom and bust cycles of the economy? The hierarchical control structures that necessarily come from unequal access, unequal knowledge, and unequal training in necessarily complicated fields?

        Or is it stability? The ability, and intent, and processes to provide food, shelter, medicine, a basic education, and leisure time to everyone?

        The scale can be set arbitrarily close to either side. But for every bit of new technology we choose, we are necessarily sacrificing resources that could have been devoted to vastly increasing the quality of life of the poor and under-served using existing and already tested processes.

        To summarize my core argument in formal terms:

        (P1) All real resources are finite. Among these are time, labor, energy, and every physical material.
        (P2) Acquisition of resources requires time, energy, and often labor.
        (P3) The laws of physics govern all interactions in the universe.
        (P4) Efficiency can improve the acquisition of resources only to a finite degree, due to the laws of physics.
        (P5) All technological civilizations, continuing on a path of exponential growth, eventually reach these physical limits.
        (P6) Forcing further development in the face of these limits creates the result of diminishing returns, where every additional input results in less and less new useful output obtained.
        (P7) The needs of people in civilization are relatively fixed, and can therefore be met without constant reinvention of the means of production or constant exponential growth in resource consumption.
        (P8) People care about technology as a means to meet their key fundamental needs, not as an end unto itself.
        (P9) People are rational creatures, and a group of rational creatures will eventually converge on rational solutions given sufficient time.
        (P10) Civilization will not be destroyed before a convergence on a stable system meeting its needs can be achieved.

        (C) Any civilization eventually shifts its priorities from exponential technological development and resource use to a stabilized management of steady-state resources towards the primary needs of its inhabitants.

        Feel free to discuss.

      • kagerato

        I must note it absolutely matters whether the “perception is justified or not”. Because if the perception is unjustified, and indeed probably unjustifiable, it could very well be that our priorities as a society are completely out of whack. Specifically, it probably means that what we’re targeting with the economic incentives structure is what the rich and powerful want — not what is best for everyone as a whole.

        What is the purpose of creating more artists, philosophers, mathematicians, research scientists, and the like when we still have plenty of starving, homeless, and ill people? Think about it. The benefits of those professions accumulate far more to those who have their basic needs already met and have spare income to burn. They’re disproportionately demanded and used by the most privileged members of society. That certainly says something about the relative weighting of our priorities, especially when people continue to demand yet more of them over doing something about the wretched poverty and misery that many still experience, both here and abroad.

      • jasondick

        “What is the purpose of creating more artists, philosophers, mathematicians, research scientists, and the like when we still have plenty of starving, homeless, and ill people?”

        Really? Did you not read my original comment that started this thread at all? My first point was on how to explicitly eliminate this problem entirely or almost entirely.

        And honestly, this kind of anti-intellectualism is positively disgusting. First and foremost, making higher education accessible to all helps to increase inter-generational mobility. Saying, “We don’t need that many educated people,” is as good as saying, “Sure, I’m okay with having a permanent underclass.”

        Furthermore, there are many more benefits to higher education than simply preparing for a job. Principally, higher education, done well, teaches young adults how to think and understand the world around them. These are critically important skills for anybody voting for any office, and increasing the number of educated people can only help elections down the road.

      • kagerato

        I read your top-level comment (and all the others), but did not find it particularly detailed. Is your solution to eliminate society’s problems to spend any amount of money? And if there isn’t that much money to spend, what do you do next? And if expanding existing programs doesn’t work? You don’t seem to acknowledge the possibility of failure. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Broad outlines alone don’t lead us to utopia; execution is at least as important as plans.

        We’ve actually been doing something similar to your recommendations — continuously increasing net spending on education and medicine — for quite some time now. When do you expect the benefits to appear? Or how much more should budgets be increased, and from what revenue?

        In any case, calling my position “anti-intellectual” is merely insulting. It doesn’t get us anywhere, and you don’t seem to be fairly reading what I said.

        I strongly favor giving everyone a thorough education. Indeed, I believe education is about teaching people how to think, not what to think. There’s no need for every last person in society to be taught the details of each academic and technical field, especially if that field is not experiencing any new economic demand at the time. Likewise, the fact that someone does not have technical knowledge of any particular subject does not make them inferior to others in any moral sense (and often not in any practical way, either). Naturally, that a person doesn’t need any particular piece of knowledge does not mean they should be prevented from learning it. I strongly support self-discovery, as it the most reliable long term method of acquiring stable knowledge and skills.

        I do not know why you think trade programs are a scam. I think trades, apprenticeships, and on-the-job learning are excellent ways for someone to gain very meaningful experience that often out-matches anything one is likely to learn in the typical classroom. Unfortunately, there aren’t really that many trade programs left, and universities are now unreasonably asked to teach practical job skills (which was never their purpose, even tracing all the way back to their origination centuries ago). As employers raise the bar so that a Bachelor’s degree is the bare minimum accepted, even if the job in question has nothing that would suggest any use for one, the poorer segments of society are effectively banned from joining many businesses.

        You also made an interesting, but mistaken and telling, substitution. I asked a rhetorical question that implied focusing our resources on generating more artists, philosophers, mathematicians, and research scientists would not necessarily end poverty, illness, or other fundamental problems. (This is an empirical argument. We have many such people working in these areas already, and the issues haven’t gone away.) You could have responded by attempting to show research that suggests it would do something about this. Instead, you simply twisted the whole thing into a claim that I want “permanent underclasses”. No, I don’t. The permanency of the poor has been with us since the dawn of agriculture. I’m looking for the solutions just as much as you are, and I don’t see how uncritical, uncapped, and untargeted investment in more university degrees of all types gets us there.

        As to the last part, yes, of course people need to learn how to think, understand the world, and produce practical plans of action. I’m not under any illusions that better critical thinking skills is somehow going to solve all our problems, though. Most of the issues that come up for us in society are a matter of resources and values. It doesn’t matter how solid a logical argument you can construct if the premises turn out to be false. Likewise, it doesn’t matter how great a system you can build if you don’t have the requisite parts for it.

        If you’re expecting education to turn conservatives into liberals or something of that nature, don’t count on it. It’s cultural bias and values judgments that sort the two, not formal education.

      • jasondick

        a) Money isn’t actually a finite resource. But in this case, the solution is simple: increase taxes, while at the same time giving every citizen a monthly or bi-weekly allowance (with possible differences based upon age and household size). This isn’t so much about spending money, as it is instituting a bare wealth transfer that ensures almost nobody starves on the street. Yes, we have more than enough resources to make this happen.

        b) When you are arguing that there are certain groups of people that don’t need education, yes, your position is absolutely anti-intellectual. It’s also supporting a permanent underclass.

        c) As for the trade school scam, see here, for example:

      • kagerato

        Well, yes, money is not a finite resource. At least, not the digital money that we use today, which is nothing more than bits in computer memory. We can, theoretically, increase the numbers as much as we want. We could flood the market with enormous amounts of free money. We don’t do that because it destabilizes the system through substantial inflation. Inflation helps debtors at the expense of savers and investors, but inflation itself is neither a net gain or loss. Too much inflation or deflation can create an economic collapse, so we tend to show some care with the money supply.

        I agree with the concept of a basic minimum income, as is clear from other posts of mine. There will be flaws and limitations, and it would take time for society to adjust and get the issues worked out, but it’s a solid idea that’s well past time for implementation.

        Ultimately, we can only increase taxes so much, so there’s going to be limits. That’s why I emphasize so repeatedly we must decide exactly what our priorities will be, going into the future.

        As for point B, I’ve repeatedly said that education is a basic need. You’re merely asserting the contrary. We cannot educate everyone in everything and never have, though. We will make trade-offs, whether you like it or not. You’ve missed points about the continuously rising cost of education, growth of a student loan bubble, economic pressures that have turned universities toward management like businesses, and the collapse of trade education turning university classrooms into job-training programs. Throwing yet more money into the mix is not a solution to these issues, so we ought to start thinking about what is.

        On the final part, that’s talking about for-profit programs which are run as a business. I strongly oppose treating education as a business venture and would not prefer if absolutely no grants or loans of any kind were offered to that type of institution. Banning them altogether is probably a pipe dream in this social climate, though.

        Note that the article you’re citing is 24 years old. The situation has gotten tremendously worse since then. Many universities are for-profit, not merely trade schools.

      • Winifred

        To return this thread to the original topic (sorry it’s strayed so far…) higher education and the free market aren’t a cure all for poverty and/or low wages, so a social safety net that guarantees higher education but doesn’t help out-of-work workers and young adults accrue actual trade skills might be of limited value. Valuing the work of all people is probably a better idea.

        Also, jasondick, I’ll point out that arguing that higher education leads to increased productivity and thus higher pay, and also that higher pay shows the greater productivity of highly educated workers, is circular. Also, I’ll second the comment by Mobyseven that correlation (high income/more education) does not equal causation.

      • jasondick

        Kagerato, seems to me that you’re arguing for a civilization of serfs ruled over by a few rich people. Why?

      • kagerato

        Nothing I said implies that necessarily. It’s one possible outcome of many, but that you choose to insert one of the most negative interpretations possible is perhaps telling. What’s the reason for your extreme pessimism?

        Furthermore, it’s kind of important to note that the societies we have now strongly resemble plutocracy. I don’t see how migrating from one plutocracy to another is some kind of failure (nor a success, obviously).

        Try addressing something specific and I may be able to give more significant answers.

      • jasondick

        It is definitely true that solving the problem of education in our country today won’t get people back to work. That’s a different issue that requires strong, immediate government investment (to the tune of $500-800b/year).

        But why are you so quick to dismiss the incredible value of education? Why should only the well-off be afforded a good education?

      • kagerato

        I’m reasonably sure, having read most of the comments, that not a single person has advocated that only the privileged should receive good educations.

      • staceywm

        Maybe if we paid labor jobs better, this wouldn’t be an issue…

  • Christine

    Bread and circus. Basically, get rid of means-based requirements for social services. Have dorms or something where you can live and get a couple of basic meals a day (I’m talking rice and beans here, nothing fancy).

    Alternatively, go with the minimum guaranteed income idea, apparently that worked really well (and didn’t cost a lot) when they tried it. But right now there are too many disincentives to work, with a lot of the programmes, because you can’t better yourself, and we’re basically forcing people to keep living at below poverty measures. Let people go get an education, invent something, etc, without worrying about what will happen if it doesn’t work out perfectly.

    I don’t feel a need for fully subsidized tuition, because that doesn’t actually seem to be a huge barrier to people getting their education, although I think that some of the professional programmes need more regulation. Some programmes charge $10 000 – $20 000 p/a, and that needs to stop. Sure, you can generally earn it back, but what if you don’t graduate? What if something happens to the job market, or your ability to work in the field, etc? However, combined with guaranteed minimum income/basics being met no matter what, it should be less of a problem. (I do also like the current process in Ontario, where a certain amount of your debt can get forgiven depending on your income. I don’t know if this is only for people who graduated or not.)

    I’m not sure that this really fits in with the above plans, but I would also like to be able to contribute to specific programmes that I have benefited from, but didn’t actually need. (i.e. the early literacy programmes, when we can definitely afford to buy music and books on our own, etc.)

  • Mel

    All people have a right to the following basics simply by being alive:
    - Food – nutritionally balanced meals 3x a day
    - Shelter – a safe, heated place to sleep, relax and store materials with privacy
    - Medical care – including access to contraceptive care, preventative health, emergency care, hospice and specialists. Mental health is viewed as important as physical health.
    - Education – a solid grounding in math, literacy, sciences, social sciences, arts and physical activities.
    - Occupational preparation – the skills or studies beyond basic education needed to pursue a career.
    -Work – the ability to contribute to society in a method that brings satisfaction to the person

    I know a lot of people worry about ‘free riders’ but I believe that mentally healthy people want to do something that benefits the world around them. I also think if you make sure that everyone under 18 has access food, shelter, medicine and education and everyone has access to all of the rights then people would be able to achieve a lifestyle that is satisfying to them.

    • ako

      I know a lot of people who are currently unable to do paid work for various reasons (such as lack of employment, temporary health problems, or long-term disabilities). I don’t know anyone who is neither actively seeking paid work, doing useful unpaid work (for example, tutoring children or volunteering at the public library), nor studying to develop skills that might lead to useful work. Everyone I know who’s not doing paid work is doing at least one of those things, and that includes a friend with severely disabling mental problems who spends her good days studying online so that one day, when she’s well enough to work, she’ll have at least made progress towards a useful degree.

      • Mel

        I agree. I have spent much time discussing this idea with my in-laws who believed that some people were lazy free-riders. Over time, they have begun to see that most people are born with an urge to be active, to help their community and strive to get the life they want.

    • Divizna

      You entirely forgot about safe, non-polluted drinking water.

      Oh, and how about safety against natural disasters, accidents and even violence? Should your government do something to ensure that?Or do zou think this is not a safety net issue?

      • Mel

        Thank you for the reminder about safe drinking water. I had mentally included that in with food, but it is a large issue that needs to be addressed in many countries.

        Yes, people deserve to be safe from violence, but I viewed that as a function of the legal system not a government safety net.

        I think the role of the government safety net in terms of natural disasters and accidents is to move as quickly as possible to restore the six basic human rights.

        As a scientist/teacher, I do not think any government can protect against all natural disasters or accidents. We can minimize damage through building codes, not allowing building in flood plains / hurricane surge areas etc, but we cannot control the Earth.

      • kagerato

        One very interesting empirical fact is that when you unconditionally meet people’s basic needs for food, shelter, and medicine the amount of violence tends to decrease all on its own. This isn’t too surprising, considering that we can safely assert from prior experience that a good chunk of violent behaviors occur to meet individual or social needs.

    • Gillianren

      A lot of mentally unhealthy people want to do something that benefits the world around them, too. It’s just that we’re less capable of doing it.

    • Little Magpie

      re: “free riders”: Some early socialist thinker pointed out that, given that society is willing to pay for the basic room and board for convicts, is it that much of a big deal to also do so the (probably fairly few) people who are simply idlers who don’t like work…. ? (not saying I necessarily agree or disagree, just throwing the idea out there)

      • Mel

        Oh, I like that line of reasoning!

      • kagerato

        That is certainly an interesting way to look at it. However, as a persuasive argument, I think it will fail on many people who tend to see prisoners as exactly “free riders”, the “undeserving”, or simply “evil”.

    • kagerato

      Your first four points, which are all essentially necessities, are fine. I’m really not sold on the last two, or what they might even mean in the future. You seem to be in the mainstream mindset that future society is going to closely resemble the present and near past. I’m not convinced.

      In case you don’t understand what I’m talking about: what would be the value of “occupational preparation” and “work” in a civilization where all of your four fundamentals are produced and managed by a collection of robots? To most people alive today, the very idea is apparently close to inconceivable. However, if we continue to spend the massive amount of resources we do on technological development for the next century, the likelihood that we approach exactly that scenario grows higher and higher.

      Now, just so no one misunderstands me, I’m not particularly convinced that a society run by a set of robots is necessarily any better. It could just as easily turn out to be an autocratic dystopia as a free-living utopia. Technology isn’t good or evil; it’s entirely how it is used that creates the result. Likewise, any tool is only as good as the user or the system that manages it. So there’s plenty of room for discussion of what will actually happen.

      There’s also another clear possibility of the future that few people seem to acknowledge. What if the technological juggernaut, the very gears of the society we know, comes to a halt? We can surely come up with all kinds of plausible-sounding scenarios for how this might occur. For instance, severe global warming or other climate events. Prolonged energy shortages. Nuclear war. A severe pandemic, probably of an as-yet unknown disease. Maybe even decades of sheer indifference caused by mass self-indulgence in some kind of virtual reality.

      In that case, concepts of “work” and “contributing to society” also fail to make much sense. Life would tend to be very survival-oriented, much as it was in hunter gather societies.

      We should remain open-minded and clear-headed about the future if we want to be prepared for what it may bring.

  • AndersH

    Interesting topic, not sure I’d call it a safety net, though, this is more of a foundation that we should all be able to stand on to strive onwards and upwards.

    Basic Quality of Life
    A basic income for everyone that covers food and shelter. This will not be means-tested, but rather go to everyone regardless of any other incomes. Thus, any income you’ll get will be in excess of this. A problem with this is to deal with regional disparities in cost of living – it’s acceptable that people have to move a bit to fit their income levels, but how far?
    A good, public healthcare system is of course a requirement, provided gratis and seeing to everyone’s needs. People who have special needs in regards to transportation, redesigning apartments and access, wheelchairs and personal assistance in employment or education and so on would be provided through this system.

    Sustained Quality of Life
    When you have an income, you quickly get used to a certain quality of life, the problem with shocks in life is that your costs don’t diminishing just because you’ve sustained an income shock (indeed, it can increase them). As such, we need insurance against unemployment, accident, health issues as well as getting children and suchlike.
    In the case of unemployment, it seems reasonable to start at close to the level of previous income and then step it down over the course of a few years,
    Accident, health issues and long-term disability are in part funded by the health care system, but of course if you will become unable to work (though if you can work in a diminished capacity I think there should be a requirement on your company to accede to that) you can’t be expected to go back to the basic income, and I’m not sure how to structure that.
    When it comes to children, they should be seen as a “normal” part of life, in other words you shouldn’t lose economically for having them. As such, long parental leave, extra money from the state to pay for needs (or the Finnish childcare box), and a hefty childcare system (so that you can go back to work, I don’t think we should have an insurance that allows people to go off work and become stay-at home parents and maintain their income levels… I think, that’s more of a choice, as long as you have good childcare through other means).

    Some thoughts, more will probably come!

  • Sophie

    I’m pretty pleased with the system we have here in the UK; free healthcare for all, good standard of state provided education from 4-18 years plus one year of state provided nursery at age 3, state pension for those 60+, non means-tested benefits for people with disabilities, non means-tested child benefit which is paid for every child, means-tested benefits for the unemployed which include housing benefit as well as an income benefit and more that I can’t think of right now.

    Things I would change would be; making higher education free again and in the same thread getting rid of student loans and reinstating student grants, making benefits for the unemployed and pensions for the elderly an actual living wage as they are now it’s hard to live on them, remove the stigma of being on state benefits due to unemployment or disability (which our current government is making worse). I would also make: means-tested benefits only dependant on the applicant’s income rather than their partner’s if they are cohabiting as that can put strain on relationships, everyone entitled to parental-leave of up to a year on normal salary after the birth or adoption of a child plus another year on a third/half salary.

    To me the welfare state should be based on the principle that the measure of a civilised society is how they take care of their most vulnerable citizens. Which means that children, the elderly, the sick and the unemployed must be cared for and not treated like they are drain on society’s resources which is what our current government are preaching.

    • staceywm

      It is the mark of a civilized society that you don’t leave people to starve or be homeless. We cannot manage that here…

      • kagerato

        No civilization has ever had zero homeless or zero hungry. What levels are we aiming for here?

        Further, I think if we’re interested in minimizing the effects of poverty, we had best take a long, hard look at the causes first. Treating the symptom instead of the cause is simply putting band-aids on open wounds. It might slow the bleeding, but it’s not going to provide any long-term solution.

        As to the causes of poverty, they’re numerous and very interactive with one another. Most of them, though, have a connection to the centralization and accumulation of resources in the hands of relatively few people. For example, health care has something to do with poverty. Sick people are less productive and less able to work, period. Yet the poor suffer from treatable conditions. Oftentimes, their state was even completely preventable, if only it had been addressed at an early enough time (sometimes that’s all the way back in childhood). So the rationing and mismanagement of available health care services definitely would be one target.

        Another example would be education, though it’s by no means easy to fix. People don’t merely need access to education. They need interest. Furthermore, it has to come from an early age to really develop fully. There’s also the relative lack of great teachers to consider. You can try to address that by use of writings or recordings and communications media to send the message to many people at once, but it’s far from the same as having one-on-one interaction. Then there’s the issue that every individual is unique, and no one learns exactly the same way. All of this together means that bringing a genuinely useful, broad, and deep education to people is extremely difficult to apply in the real world.

        We also have to consider the cycle of crime and punishment, especially across generations. This is a key contributor to poverty. Children who grow up without parents, or fewer parents, or only disinterested foster parents, are not getting the same opportunities to succeed as everyone else. So every parent that ends up in prison, justly or injustly, is one little piece of the puzzle. The injust laws, however, really grate on the nerves. That anyone should spend time in jail for personal drug use, for instance, is simply nutty. Even selling relatively dangerous purified drugs should not be producing the kinds of decades-long sentences we see in practice. As for most of the violence surrounding the drug trade, it’s largely caused by the existence of the black market itself. Outcompete, control, and regulate instead of banning it and we could make a big difference in the violence rate. Compare and contrast organized crime in pre and post-Prohibition America with the prohibition era.

        One must also consider the effects the financial system has, and how it creates a dependence of the poor on the rich. Basic facilities of life, including personal transportation and housing, are essentially dependent on the lending of banks. This creates a lose-lose situation. Either the lower classes receive no lending and thus must go without, or they receive lending at interest which increases the net wealth disparity. There’s no option for escaping the cycle for most people, other than sheer dumb luck. I won’t even go into the details of credit cards and payday loans, which are simply the most extreme examples of how this plays out.

    • kagerato

      Why means test any benefits at all? What are you trying to accomplish with that? Assuming your answer is “corruption” or “deception” or something of that nature, there’s truly no reason to bother. Any form of testing that is sufficiently strict to actually catch a high level of “cheating the system” will end up preventing far more people from ever using it to begin with. Likewise, if the examinations are lenient, people will easily slip through and all we’re really doing is wasting everyone’s time.

      Is there some particular reason for having a dozen different benefits, instead of just one lump benefit that is adjusted according to need? Separate programs create additional administrative overhead, and make it a lot more difficult for the users of the system to interact with it.

      I do agree that the student loan system has fundamental flaws that a grant system does not. However, grants create the particular burden of deciding who gets them, how much they’re worth, when they’ll be awarded, and so forth. Administration becomes significant, and we can’t rely on profit motives to try to restrain any excesses.

      Feeding the university-level education system, whether through loans or grants, has also created an unwanted side effect: the cost of education is continuously increasing. It keeps growing, faster than both inflation and wages. There’s no particularly obvious sign that this will stop any time soon. It’s an example of how merely throwing money at a problem, without critically analyzing the effectiveness of how that money is spent and why, doesn’t lead to a practical solution. Rather, education has simply become another business. This is all the more true here state-side, where for-profit education institutes continue to appear and expand. Even the non-profit sector is affected, with more and more money from tuition and other fees being spent on administration and sports programs rather than on anything that directly contributes to learning.

      • Sophie

        I was keeping means-testing because Libby Anne stated that we weren’t dealing with a utopia but rather starting off with the same problems the country currently has – the UK has just come out of a double-dip recession and has a massive unemployment problem. So I was going with the assumption that there were limits to how much money was available, I’d rather put benefits up for those who desperately need the money than make them available to people who can manage without. I am aware that the system isn’t perfect, it took me a year to get the benefits I was entitled to, but no system is perfect and I think better a few people have to appeal decisions than loads of people get money they don’t need.

        I would maintain the current system of benefits because the system is already there and therefore there would be no added cost there. Plus there would be familiarity for those making claims, they would know what they were getting. The UK benefits system is changing at the moment, streamlining several benefits into one and it’s causing chaos, people have had their money stopped by accident or have found they no longer meet the criteria for benefits they have been getting for decades or are having the reapply and don’t understand the new system.

        To be honest I don’t see how a grant system is any different than a loans system, with loans someone has to decide who gets the loan and how much they get just the same as with a grant.

        Finally my original comment took me all of ten minutes to write, it was off the top of my head. I haven’t given the original premise much thought because I am unlikely to ever be in charge of building a social infrastructure, it was just things that have occurred to me as I have accessed the system available in the UK. So I am baffled as to why you felt the need to criticise it. Also I notice that you haven’t replied to the original post just criticised everyone else’s.

      • kagerato

        You’re actually right that there isn’t much difference between education loans and grants — at least not in the U.S. anymore. The federal government set up a program during the Ford administration under the education department which essentially guarantees that a private lender WILL be reimbursed for any education loan that meets certain criteria (and they’re not particularly stringent requirements, for a bank). This is true even if the borrower ends up defaulting. So, essentially, banks have zero reason not to lend as much as they possibly can. Every education loan turns a profit, whether from the borrower or from the government. I’m not aware of whether a similar situation is in place in the UK, or if the government simply tries to handle everything itself.

        The reason I alluded to “profit motive” in my post before had to do with this, too. Assuming that loans are NOT provided perfect insurance by the government, banks will tend to restrain their lending to risky borrowers (like, say, young adults without stable jobs) a lot. The chance of numerous defaults is simply not worth the modest potential for profit in many cases. Of course, what happens in practice is that there’s not enough money going around to fund education without large grant programs, whether from public or private institutions.

        In any case, the elephant in the room is still the cost of education, which continues to rise with no clear bounds. That must be dealt with, one way or another, or there is no viable solution. My preference would be to attack it from the supply side, with more colleges and universities, more teachers, more fine-tuned programs, but much less spending on frivolities like administrative salaries and sports programs. (In fact, cutting sports programs may have a useful double-effect: fewer people enroll merely because they want to play/watch sports instead of actually learn. Reducing demand will help lower costs just as increasing supply would.)

        Oh, and for-profit education institutions should simply be banned outright. Siphoning any amount of money out of the education system for personal profit is abhorrent. All the more so when there’s a good chance that money actually came from government grants or loans.

      • Sophie

        The UK higher education system works very differently from the one in the US. And it’s just gone through another lot of changes which I’m not very clear on, so instead I will tell you what my experience was.

        When I got my place at university I applied to the Student Loans Company (which only exists to give loans to students), I filled in a bunch of forms relating to my parents income and because at the time neither of my parents were working I received the full amount which was £3000 a year. This money was to go towards my tuition costs which would have been £3000 a year except I was studying nursing and my tuition was being paid by the NHS. I also received a bursary from the NHS. I don’t have to pay my student loans back until I earn over a certain amount a year, I think it’s about £18,000. I don’t see how that system couldn’t just be adapted to grants like it used to be pre-late 90s.

        Like I said the system has changed, last Autumn tuition costs went up to £12000 a year at most English and Welsh universities (Scottish universities don’t charge tuition for Scottish students) however the tuition costs don’t have to be paid until they are earning over a certain wage and they are paid off at a very low rate. Or so I understand it.

        Basically from what I have heard from American friends, higher education in the UK is still a lot cheaper than in the US and the systems are pretty different. So really there is no point trying to compare them. Or trying to apply the way things work in America to how they work here in the UK.

  • JohnH2

    I would scrap everything at the federal level and let each state decide upon its chosen path so that those that want cradle to grave government care can live in such a state (with its tax rate), those that want minimal government assistance can live in that state (with its tax rate). I would strictly enforce a policy to prevent states from going bankrupt or receiving any federal bailout; meaning those states where people want massive amounts of assistance would have to figure out how to do so responsibly,

    • Feminerd

      I think that would work out very poorly. The free rider problem (live in a low-tax, low-benefit state until getting sick, then move to a high-benefit state to receive free health care) would be enormous. Or grow up in a high-benefit state and receive free, high-quality education, then move to a low-tax, low-benefit state to take advantage of the education provided by society.

      Heck, we already have that problem. The US South gets far more federal money than it pays in because its state policies are so stingy that its poverty rates are high, while the Northeast and Northwest actually get negative benefits (they pay more than they receive) in order to prop up the South. You’d just make that even more unequal.

      • JohnH2

        In the case of the South the states would be forced to live without the federal subsidies. They would probably have to create their own safety nets of some sort rather than not having any at all. The northern states would then be keeping their benefits and thus be able to either expand them or better deal with immigrants from states with poorer safety nets.

        Given that people are aware of the free rider problem then solutions should be possible.

      • Feminerd

        You think so? I live in Texas. They aren’t expanding Medicaid because of ideological opposition to ObamaCare, even though it would cost the state almost nothing. They defunded women’s health clinics out of ideological opposition to Planned Parenthood, even though that meant an increase in costs from unwanted, unplanned pregnancies (shockingly, babies cost more than birth control). They don’t have an income tax at all, even though that’s the fairest means of raising state funds, because that might make the rich actually have to pay something real. Instead it’s sales taxes (the most regressive form of taxation) and property taxes.

        The current state leaders don’t give a shit about anyone who isn’t white and male and fairly well-off; what makes you think that’s going to change if you take away all constraints on their power to make this state a total shithole?

      • JohnH2

        And there are plenty of people that think that California (which is largely the opposite of Texas) is a total s-hole. Taking the constraints away from both, but also making both actually have to deal with all of their own problems, would allow each to be total s-holes for those that think they are s-holes and attempts at paradise for those that think such a system is paradise.

        Right now the state of Texas can largely do what it wants without too much concern for a large part of the consequences because the federal safety net is there to pick up the pieces, take the federal safety net away and the state either must step in and start caring about problems that it currently ignores, or deal with the consequences. Right now a large portion of those that vote for the extremist legislators in Texas, Kansas, etc are wholly dependent on federal money to live (making them hypocrites and allowing them to ignore the consequences of their hypocrisy), take away the federal money and I imagine that the make up of such states legislature would quickly become more rational and shift to at least the center.

        Likewise, free California (and other states) from all federal restraint on its safety net so as to provide free health care, free childcare, perhaps a guaranteed income, no means testing, and whatever else is desired (per those on this thread) but make the state be fully responsible for the payment of such things and then we will all be able to see what happens.

        I imagine that what would happen is that a few states would head for attempts at various forms of utopia and end up proving (yet again) that all such attempts will fail for either economic or social reasons, but that most would largely end up having either slightly left or right of the current social safety net, but not too far in either direction, and that such nets would hopefully actually be funded as opposed to the current system of unfunded obligations and government via crises.

      • orgostrich

        The problem with this is that moving between states is expensive (both financially and socially), especially for the people who need help the most. A poor person who wants to live in a state with a strong social safety cannot easily pick up their life and move from Texas to California. Similarly, that person cannot move the other way if they think they would be better off with lower taxes and no government help. This might not be too much of a problem for middle-class or upper-middle-class people, but it’s the poor that are most affected by these policies and least able to altar them or their situations. I’m not willing to let people anywhere in the country become trapped in a bad/extreme system in another state and just say it’s none of my business because they chose to live there.

        Also, Paul Krugman has done a lot of writing for the NYTimes explaining why this sort of completely separated system in each state will work poorly due to states sharing a common currency and being unable to manipulate it.

      • JohnH2

        The inability of the poor to move is certainly the biggest problem that I see with my proposal.

        I am aware of the effects of not being able to manipulate currency; California is already experiencing the problems that come from this (of which the EU countries are sort of an extreme example). However, I am of the opinion that manipulating the currency is not good long term solution and that currency manipulation has a price by itself. I am not very comfortable with the stability of the currency being dependent on how responsible politicians have been with the social safety net.

      • kagerato

        The inability to manipulate the currency to deal with a financial crisis is not the key reason what some European Union countries are in such a bind. Yes, it is one reason, in the sense that you can always inflate yourself out of any amount of debt. But it’s not really the best element of the situation to focus on.

        Rather, the key problem is that some countries in the EU are effectively net debtors to others, and the lending countries are completely unwilling to forgive debts (or in many instances, even reduce them). Once you combine this with the unfavorable import-export ratios of the debtors, there simply isn’t enough income to repay the debts at any reasonable pace. Then, due to exponential interest growth, they become unrepayable. This necessarily leads either to default, forgiveness, or currency revolution.

        Of course, the whole matter is made insufferably worse by choosing to do nothing of significance about the fundamentals, and just stick to cutting budgets year after year and praying that this somehow magics the funds into existence. That’s no recipe for growth, certainly, and it’s really not clear that growth should even be the goal. Growing your way out of a crisis is a very mid-20th century mindset, to be honest. There’s not that much room left for huge and rapid growth in the West, once you consider all the implications of population dynamics and diminishing returns on technological development.

      • kagerato

        John, you’re relying on the false premise that the “leecher” states like Mississippi and Alabama would choose to address their problems in a sensible and humane way in the absence of federal support and requirements. What if they decide the best way to deal with the poor, the undereducated, the dependent, the unemployed, the disabled, and so forth is simply to imprison them all? That’s exactly how sociopolitical development has played out through much of American history regarding the non-white population. What was the plan before the “imprison the whole lot of em” design? Right. Slavery.

        An oligarchic and plutocratic system is not going to lead to any kind of reasonable solution for most of the population. Federal controls are the only particularly strong force holding many states back from enforcing the most regressive policies they can on their citizens.

        The reason that the laissez-faire attitude never works out too well for anyone who’s not already rich and powerful is that without clear and effective restraints, power tends to accumulate. Since the Civil War, the federal government stepped in to be the voice of restraint in many policies of the southern states. Take that away without changing any of the fundamentals (and they truly have changed much less than you think), and an eventual return to aristocratic feudalism is essentially inevitable.

    • staceywm

      Except that everyone that can and needs it, moves to the places with assistance. It would only work if no one could move. SO, not really a solution at all..

  • luckyducky

    - Free (or at least heavily subsidized) and highly regulated childcare
    - Free (or at least heavily subsidized) post-secondardy education/training — I like the rough outline of the way the Dutch (used to) do it — free if you finish you degree/certification within a given time frame, otherwise you pay for time spent
    - Socialized medicine — medicare for all or NHS-style, don’t really have strong opinions about which is better
    - Far more robust and protected SNAP
    - Better subsidized housing — a lot of the problems with my local public school district have their roots in weak tenant protection, which results in students living in substandard housing and moving a lot — moving from school to school a lot.

    I own rental property, so I understand the pressure the landlords are under — if they don’t get rent, they can’t pay the mortgage, make repairs, etc. Sure, there are genuine slum lords who are ruthless but there are many people for whom this is an average livelihood and while they may be able to take a hit now and then can’t really afford to subsidize their tenants. And there are many who do little more than break even and have very little cushion to absorb missed rent, major repairs, or vacancies. We just have to decide that stability for low-income families is a priority.

    We know how to do it, we just have to decide to spend the money on it. All of these things ultimately save us, collectively, more money than they cost in the long run but it take acknowledging that the poor aren’t poor by choice, which opens the possibility that we could also possibly fall on hard times (we are sooo very good that we can’t make mistakes or we aren’t vulnerable accidents or whims of fate) and/or that we experience some privilege — we’re born on base while the poor often don’t even get the chance to step up to the plate.

    • kagerato

      Your second paragraph makes zero sense to me. People who own property do not pay any rent or mortgage on it. If you have a mortgage, the bank owns it, not you. (You may have equity, but you don’t have ownership unless you can show your right to the deed/title itself.)

      Likewise, it is not an “average livelihood” in any sense to own rental properties. That is called being rich. Indeed, even being able to invest in land or property ownership is showing signs of substantial financial privilege — whether you own or not.

      I’d suggest you look up the statistics on property ownership sometime. You might be shocked at how large the fraction of all land and property that is owned by a tiny percentage of the population. The data strongly correlates with wealth and income inequality, for obvious reasons.

      • Feminerd

        I kinda have to disagree that owning rental property means you’re rich. It means you’re much better situated than most- that’s absolutely true. But … when my parents moved away from their condominium, the housing market sucked and they couldn’t sell it. So they rented it out (to cover mortgage costs and maybe a bit extra) while they got a new house in their new location. And then they never got around to selling it, and now they actually do own it some 20+ years later. They’re upper middle class now, but they weren’t at the time.

        My husband’s family is in a similar situation. They own (as much as anyone can own a home with a mortgage) a house that they rent out for extra money; they maintain it themselves and act as direct landlords. It’s a long-term investment for them; yes, they were able to afford the house, but they’re also using the rent they get as supplemental income because they don’t have much other savings. The house is their investment instead of the stock market. They’re definitely middle class, not rich.

      • kagerato

        I won’t argue semantics on what “rich” really means. From the global perspective, nearly ever person in the West is filthy rich with a ridiculously higher quality of life than the mean or median. It’s a matter of perspective.

      • Feminerd

        Well of course. I’m focusing primarily on relative wealth within the United States; it’s a limited perspective, but the most useful one for this particular post.

  • Kevin Alexander

    Mannaism. Give everyone a bank card, usable in any ATM or store, and deposit x dollars each week, x being enough to get by. A student could go to school, a mother could feed her kids, old people don’t have to eat dog food– that sort of thing. Let entrepreneurs scramble to get the money as it’s spent and tax them to fund the system. Keep the tremendous benefits of the capitalist system while making it pay for the damage it does.

    It replaces the mishmash of government agencies that mostly function as bureaucracies of judgment, of deciding who deserves it.

    Free health care because, well, because it’s right.

    There would still be government agencies since many people would still spend the money on booze or religion or other drugs and neglect their kids.

    • kagerato

      I’ve heard this idea myself before, and it sounds great in principle. I don’t think it will work out that amazing in practice, for all the same reasons that cause many people to make poor financial decisions. Money is fungible, and that is both its great advantage and its greatest weakness. Beware the scam artists.

      Perhaps a more secure alternative would be to simply have separate, limited government issued currencies (credits?) for each particular service we’re trying to guarantee. We already do something of that sort with food stamps, which you can only spend on food. Why not the same concept for housing and medicine?

      You could get the same effect with other introducing other pseudo-currencies by simply using separate earmarked accounts for each person. In essence, you have a “food balance”, a “housing balance”, a “medicine balance”, a “transportation balance” and so forth. You could withdraw from each account only when making a purchase of the relevant type, and basically all legal businesses would have their products pre-registered in central databases. One substantial drawback I can see is that this system is ripe for abuse. Governments could easily conduct surveillance on our fundamental activities, and their control over the central databases of registered products would essentially determine what is and is not “legitimate”. It would be best to find some way to implement an equivalent system entirely through an independent third-party, instead of the government, but then the people would need legitimate reason to trust that third party instead and ways to prevent collusion between it and other actors to manipulate the market.

      With actual, separate, cash-like pseudo-currencies it’s possible to mostly dodge the whole accountability, surveillance, and registration problems. Legitimate businesses can simply be required to accept any types relevant to their function, and the government is required to exchange them for the actual national currency. Auditing the system would still be a pain — it always is, even considering just cash purchases. Likewise, this scheme can’t prevent people from foolishly trading their pseudo-currency for hard cash on the black market.

      There’s no silver bullet, it seems.

  • Gillianren

    Currently, in order to qualify for Social Security Insurance (SSI, the kind of disability that doesn’t require having paid into the system), you are not permitted to have more than $2000 in assets. Because a life insurance policy my parents bought when I was an infant allowed me to borrow up to $2300 at 8% interest, and because I didn’t realize that (or indeed remember anything about the life insurance policy, given that I hadn’t paid for it and didn’t deal with the paperwork myself), I had to cash the policy in, and I’m paying back Social Security for the time I was on SSI and still had the policy at $50 a month. I did the math; that’s going to take me twenty years. My $710 check is now $660 a month.

    I understand saying that people who have means over a certain amount shouldn’t qualify for certain benefits; Bill Gates won’t need to draw Social Security and frankly shouldn’t be allowed to. However, the cutoffs are way too low. If my boyfriend and I had gotten married (which we considered, before he left for a tour of duty in Iraq), I would not have qualified for benefits despite the fact that he couldn’t really afford to pay for both of us and certainly couldn’t pay for my medical expenses. Since he was in the Reserves, the Army would have paid them while he was overseas, but not after he got back. It’s not a decision people should have to make.

    If I ran the world? Guaranteed health care, so that no one would have to base any other financial or personal decision around whether or not they could get treatment. And that would definitely include mental health care. Trade schools that were actually worth attending, though I wouldn’t segregate children into trade school until they were old enough that it was a rational decision. Incentives for going into needed fields–no one would ever have to decide against being a doctor because they couldn’t afford it, especially if they were willing to, say, provide health care for the poor. Yes, that would also require educational testing; you wouldn’t qualify for the incentives if you weren’t smart enough or mentally geared toward getting through the education.

    A real safety net for those unable to work. It took me three years to get on SSI, because they’re so determined to weed out the people just trying to cheat the system. I’m not capable of holding a job for several reasons, and if I’d tried while waiting my way through the system, it just would have proven that I didn’t need to be on it in the first place, right?

    I could go on, but I think I’ve already gone on too long.

    • Jayn

      “Guaranteed health care, so that no one would have to base any other
      financial or personal decision around whether or not they could get

      Or base their healthcare decisions on what they can afford. We’re financially stable for the most part, but one incentive for me to avoid any elective pre-natal care right now is cost (and I have insurance!). Some I’d turn down anyways–I’m pretty low risk–but I hate that that’s even a consideration.

      • Gillianren

        Right, good point. Medical decisions should be made for medical reasons.

      • Christine

        Even better than just paying for the treatments – we need to find a way to make it possible for women to get their pre-natal care. (This one in particular, because the timing is so critical, and there are things that pre-natal care can fix/mitigate that would have an affect on the kid too, but other health care as well). I know that a lot of public health programmes provide bus tickets to participants, especially for parenting ones, and that should maybe be more widespread, but it’s not enough. I don’t know what would help, but the cost of an appointment is hardly the only thing that makes health care hard to afford.

  • Feminerd

    I agree with most of the people here.

    Free public schooling through university/trade school. Monthly stipend for vocational or university students so they can concentrate on school. Free or heavily subsidized childcare. Free or heavily subsidized single-payer healthcare. Guaranteed paid parental leave for both parents. Food stamps actually work really well overall, so I’d just expand the program so everyone who needs it can access it, and raise benefits to something resembling enough money. Guaranteed pension for everyone, a la Social Security, but with the recognition that this is many people’s only retirement income so it needs to be increased at the bottom end. Lots of public housing (both free and subsidized) in mixed-income areas; concentrating it in one area leads to ghettoization, which is a problem. Needle-exchange programs and safe high houses- drug addiction isn’t pretty and it isn’t good, but it exists, and Vancouver has shown that this sort of thing works very well in lowering crime rates and also getting people into treatment.

    To pay for it all: Marginal income tax rates up to ~70% with no capital gains special rate, which also has the benefit of reducing inequality. Estate taxes of up to 50% for large ($5 million+) inheritances. Decrease (preferably eliminate) subsidies to the oil and gas industries. Decrease farm subsidies. Cut spending on the military drastically, but mostly on the hardware side. Remove the payroll tax cap for Social Security.

    • kagerato

      In principle, I very much agree with raising the marginal income tax rates substantially. However, tax evasion among the rich is already significant with the federal rate topping out at a mere 40%. This is especially true of corporations, who hold very large sums in foreign accounts essentially indefinitely. They have no intention of repatriating the money earned from foreign spenders unless given a ridiculously low tax rate for it. There’s a case to be made that many of these accounts would be double-taxed (under two different countries laws) during repatriation, too. That happens in import-export with tariff and trade regulations as well, but no one complains about it there (probably because it doesn’t disproportionately affect the rich).

      How do we prevent income tax evasion in an effective manner, especially when large chunks of the plutocratic class believe their rates are already far too high?

      Should we switch entirely to asset and wealth-based taxes, since these are much easier to enforce? (It’s hard to hide mansions and yachts.)

      Also, what do we do if revenue from tax increases doesn’t materialize? Most people don’t realize how many exemptions the tax code really has, and they’re all legal. The rich can afford very good tax accountants. Plus, for businesses, they can make use of what I call “transference”. Spend all their revenue, all the time. This means they pay out everything they can, be it as salaries, and on supplies, goods, services, property or anything else they might need. Now, ideally this might cause notable economic growth, because the money being spent on something is much better than it being idle. But there’s no guarantees about any particular recipients actually spending instead of saving or investing, and thus no reliable way to predict the long term results. Eventually, one can guess that the benefits will level off at some stable level.

      • Feminerd

        All good questions, and I don’t have all the answers.

        We tax expatriate income, but we do let people deduct what they pay in local taxes from their taxable income. We could do the same for all assets instead of just income, both corporate and individual. We’d still have issues with reporting, but it seems a less-abusable system than our current one.

        Any sort of massive increase in the social safety network would require a complete revision/rewriting of the tax code. That’s a given. As the prompt specifically prompted us to ignore the politically feasible, I pretended that a sane tax system that wasn’t riddled with deductions and loopholes could be created. Well, it could be, but politically it won’t be.

        VATs (value added taxes) on luxury items could also be part of a potential solution.

  • Matthew Hines

    I base any of my social safety nets on equality of opportunity, of giving people the means to improve their lives. Abraham Maszlow created the famous hierarchy or needs – that being certain things take precedence over others. At the bottom is food, shelter, and meeting necessities. At the top is self-actualization. People only focus on higher needs when they don’t have to worry about other needs.

    So, the only way you will break the cycle of poverty for low income Americans is by making them more secure in food supplies, housing, and basic income. Then they can focus on improving their skills, getting a better education, marrying, or whatever else that would improve their life.

    What I would do is continue to fund Food Stamps and WIC, and continue Section Eight payments. I would increase Pell Grants to those students from households making under $50,000/ year. I would re-impose Glass-Steagall rules on banks, thus making them much more stable. I would give a flat $5000 cash credit to every American when they file taxes, which will then be deposited in a HSA or FSA like account, and will be spent on healthcare related expenses. This will be paid for by repealing the employer health plan deduction, and it will still save about $120 billion a year.

    Just a few ideas from a progressive thinking Republican.

    • kagerato

      Glass-Steagall (the Banking Act of 1933) separate commercial and investment activities of banks to some reasonable degree. It’s an interesting and useful separation, but it’s far from sufficient to establish a stable financial system. It didn’t outlaw commodity speculation (nothing has done that). It doesn’t prohibit financial derivatives (the practice of creating virtual financial products to sell based on the value of commodities, stocks, funds/reserves, or even another financial product). These latter two factors were much more significant to the development of the housing bubble that began to crash in 2007-2008.

      Ultimately, there’s probably no way to make a completely stable banking system that actually satisfies everyone’s demands. So unless we’re willing to give up on some of the more lavish and outlandish requirements that people ask for (limitless growth and investment potential, to name a key one), we should understand it’s just a pipe dream.

  • Katherine Hompes

    Is it cheating to say I’d give me (and those like me- disabled single parents) more money?

    I’m from Australia. Our social safety net may have some holes, but I’d be in a very bad place without it.

    I think incentivising volunteer work and study would be a good addition- as it is, I’m penalised because I found a way around my disability to study, even though I’m not physically capable of work at the moment.

  • tsara

    Not really sure, but mental health care would definitely be a priority.

    • kagerato

      The importance of that cannot be understated these days.

  • Nurse Bee

    I saw this on facebook today and thought it was great:

    • Cathy W

      I was gonna post that! It’s a wonderful idea – especially the idea that you can opt for a cash grant instead of the box, say, if you’re having your second baby in three years and still have all the stuff from the first baby’s box.
      Fits in nicely with a couple of the Rules of Cathytopia: If you want to become a parent, we will make it as easy as possible for you (this includes prenatal and maternity care being FREE!, daycare being easily available, labor regulations that don’t penalize women’s careers for taking maternity leave…); if you don’t want to become a parent, we will make that as easy as possible for you too (have the long-acting highly-effective birth control of your choice, on us!).

  • staceywm

    Part of any safety net planning would need to deal with the issues that cause all the poverty to begin with.

    I think free health care, maternity/paternity/family leave, like Canada, as well as some guaranteed income for everyone under 200k would be wonderful, People don’t get mad about “moochers” when they get the money as well. It is not a pipe dream, it could easily be paid for just by eliminating some subsidies, enforcing tax laws that allow corporations that profit to pay nothing, and not spending into insanity on the military budget.

    However, dealing with the underlying issues is a must- from education, to proper nutrition, to work that can sustain a family.

    People often say if we give everyone income, who will do the shit jobs?” Indeed! Maybe those jobs need to change, to be better paid, better regarded, with better conditions. Service work and retail should not be low wage work, and this should not accepted as necessary. With companies like Wal Mart hurting local areas by requiring services for their workers (because they pay like crap), while posting record profits, something has to give.

    • kagerato

      Perhaps there won’t be any shit jobs. Our current technology has robots which can mine, explore the sea bed, vacuum the floor, and drive cars. Is it a huge leap to think there will be robots that can clean toilets and stock shelves in the not-so-distant future?

  • Sarah Fertig

    I propose a maximum wage. No single person can accumulate more than say, $5 million dollars worth of combined cash, property, etc. If you have a huge company that costs $50 million dollars to run per year, that’s fine, but you personally do not get to walk home with $50 million. Everything over your $5 mil gets funneled back into your county, state, and nation.

    I realize that the ultra rich and even the medium rich are a very small percentage of the population, and I don’t know how much money that would free up. But after living through 6 months of my boyfriend being employed by Sam’s Club, I feel like it’s absolutely criminal for any one person or family to control so much wealth.

    • Hilary

      I like this

    • kagerato

      That’s subject to the same problem as the minimum wage — over time, it fails to keep pace with inflation. So you’re either going to have to add a mandatory requirement to update the wage levels periodically based on current spending power, or you’ll have to take the big leap and do away with the mechanisms of capitalism which cause inflation in the first place.

      The latter is extremely difficult in practice. One approach would be to eliminate the fractional reserve system and the hierarchical scheme of private lenders. Then you manage capital entirely through controls of the central bank (in the U.S., the Federal Reserve). Keeping the monetary base and financial system as a whole at exactly zero inflation all the time, though, is nearly impossible even with that degree of central control — unless the economy itself is extremely simple and easily predicted.

      As for the former, it’s a lot easier to accomplish. However, you’ll essentially have to find a way to force the government to get the figures right. Otherwise, you end up with the same situation we have now. The government tells you what inflation is, and you simply have to believe their figures and accept the changes they make. It could be a complete lie, but if made convincing enough, there’s no way a private entity with limited information would notice.

  • Hilary

    A lot of this is very good – health care, mental health care, education, food, ect. but I’d also focus on the social safty net. I’d work on a mosaic of possible solutions, testing the real life effectiveness of each one, seeing how they can be used in different communities. For example:

    Food and community. Access to healthy food is a must, and gardens that allow small groups of people to work together can strengthen local block-by-block neighborhoods. I’d increase that until it was embarressing for even the poorest neighborhood to not have a series of communal garden space to grow fresh food and compost organic waste. (non-fecal type organic waste). These gardens would include safe places for children to play built into them.

    Rec centers. Safe, well maintained places for people to get together, put on plays, enjoy non-insanely competitive sports, art programs, child developement and parenting classes, classes and therapy for healthy family and adult relationships, after school classes, programs, daycare, poetry slams, art exhibits, more gardening, craft and trade classes, square dancing, hip-hop dancing, libraries, writing classes, and cooking classes for all the garden produce.

    I’d look into generational poverty busters. The Jeremiah Program is a program that takes poor, young mothers and gives them wrap around help for up to two years. A safe home, parenting classes, child developement, education and real life skills to break or prevent generational poverty. I’d work to expand crises nurseries as emergency stop gap crises child care, which also helps stressed out parents BEFORE they get to the point of child abuse, and help find safe alternatives to unsafe relationships.

    I’d interview every foster care child, parent, and social worker in the county to learn what they need to redo our foster care system from the ground up. For healthcare, I’d look into expanding something I heard on NPR, about general doctors using a RV revamped into a mobile health care office to make regular visits in veryunderserved communities, bringing easy and affordable care to people who can’t get there themselves. Regular visits to build trust and help with chronic conditions, get to know the rhythems of peoples lives, be able to check for abuse and stop it before it gets worse.

    I know from personal experience how valuable it can be to be part of a healthy, *non-fundamentalist* religious congregation. I’d look for secular ways to re-create that support and social connections, with many of the ideas above.
    I know that there is a great need to redo our safety net from the governmental side, but I’d also look into as many ways as possible to invest in these types of social safety nets as well. That’s just for starters, then I’d tackle world peace, bring Israel and Palestine into a sane political agreement, and fix global climate change.


    • kagerato

      I rather like your ideas there. These are precisely some of the big items missing from poorer communities (usually because they’d be funded by the local government, which is extremely dependent on property taxes). Getting enough people involved in these sorts of projects would be an effective way to reduce poverty.

  • Rob F

    With regards to redistribution, taxes, etc, I’d like to refer to my own post covering similar topics, which I feel is relevant enough to link. (Simply replace the Canadian terms with their American analogues).

    The current situation in the US creates incentives for people not to leave bad sitations, such as losing health benefits if they quit their job causes “job lock”, which discourages people from changing jobs or leaving bad situations. This reduces the power of employees at the expense of dipf*** managers on power trips, even if nominally they have the same abilities to quit and go elsewhere; basically, you have more to lose if you wuit than your employer will lose if they fire you. Making health care should be universal or at least not tied into a job would prevent this. I wonder what those whose response to everything is “pack up and leave” would think of this? (I already know the answer).

    Similar reasoning to health applies to retirement benefits.

    School funding is signifanctly tied to property taxes. If instead school funding was from general revenue this disparity between schools in poor neighbourhoods and those in rich ones would be at least partially mitigated.

    • kagerato

      That last part, about the connection between school quality and property taxes, is extremely important. It creates a self-propagating cycle where better schools attract wealthier, better educated parents who start families whose children receive better educations, and so on through the generations.

  • Little Magpie

    I’m finding I mostly agree with Feminerd directly below, with a few minor differences…

    Free public schooling – *including daycare for pre-school age children.* Free single payer healthcare. Guaranteed income / and or housing, food, basic necessities for everyone who can’t afford it on their own (seniors, those unable to work due to disability, those who in poverty for whatever other reason). Free healthcare, and free or heavily subsidized access to medications (or certainly the basic life-saving stuff, anyhow) – since it’s good to not have to pay out of pocket to see the doctor – but how helpful is that if you can’t pay for any meds? Minimum wage that actually amounts to a living wage. Free career/vocational based training for those having difficulty finding work, or wanting to change careers (although this should be voluntary, not coercive, ie, not “you must do retraining if you want welfare benefits). Guaranteed and flexible paid parental leave for both/either parent (ie, leave it to them how they wish to arrange it: perhaps one wants to go back to work immediately because ze loves zir job; then the other should get twice the time). End the “war on drugs” police state and focus instead on harm reduction: rehab, needle exchanges, etc. (Think how many tax dollars would be saved in terms of the police time/wages – I mean, you wouldn’t necessarily be cutting the police, but allowing those resources to be used for something else; and also in terms of not having to incarcerate non-violent drug offenders!)… Much, much more investment in public transit.

    Higher taxes on the richest in society (has anyone seen the video with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett saying, we should be paying more taxes) and on large corporations. Pare down the military budget (again, as other people have said, in terms of fewer fancy expensive planes etc; the average soldier, IIRC, doesn’t get paid very well as it is!) – hell, stop being the world’s policeman and getting into these wars in the first place!

    And here I speak as a Canadian: you guys may think things like gas prices and sales taxes are too high, but they really aren’t; I pay harmonized sales tax of 13% on most things, and I don’t think any city/region in the US I have visited has that much, cumulatively (although I’m happy to be corrected: my travels certainly haven’t been exhaustive!)… and more tax built into gas prices, to be able to better pay for public transit… not a social safety net issue on the surface of it, but consider first of all, the effects of most people using private cars -> greater traffic and greater pollution -> health effects like asthma; also, the difficulty presented to the working class when you need a car to get anywhere, including your job – which means needing to worry about car loan payments, insurance, fuel costs, maintenance costs, on top of all your other costs (rent/mortgage, putting food on the table, etc…) … higher taxes on tobacco and alcohol (and hell, on purchasing firearms and ammo while we’re at it! Why not)… also, you know, i f we decriminalized marijuana we could regulate it and tax it out the wazoo like with the tobacco and alcohol.. :)

    Yah. Give me enough time sitting here replying and I’ll probably keep on going, but I think that’s probably enough.

    • Jayn

      OT: The HST dropped again? It was 14% when I left.

      Sales tax here is only about half that, and it always startles me when I’m paying attention to how much I’m paying, but frankly I miss the Canadian social safety net (or at least the healthcare system, since I haven’t dealt much with any other aspects of it on either side of the border) and would gladly pay for it.

      • Little Magpie

        To clarify since as you know several of the provinces have HST: I’m in Ontario and yes, they’ve dropped it again; the “GST” portion is now at 5% (+8% for what was the provincial sales tax portion) – and I sometimes actually wish that municipalities were constitutionally allowed to have sales tax as many US cities do; I assume it’s a problem general to all the larger municipalities, it’s been a real problem in Toronto, ever since the provincial Tory gov’t of ~15 yrs ago that the province “downloaded” the responsibilities for all sorts of services to the municipalities, without there being any new methods of generating income for the city. So the only way that the city can get increased revenue for the increasing outlay for services they provide (both because of new responsibilities, and also paying more for services as the population grows) is by jacking up property tax or jacking up fines (like parking tickets and the like) – or begging the province for more funds.

        Everybody squeals when taxes increase, that’s human nature I think, but I think we’re less allergic to the concept of taxation up here. Me personally, I am perfectly happy to pay taxes, *because* I know that it is going towards providing services towards the the social good. That’s the whole point!! Partly, yes, it’s the system I was raised in and that’s what’s “normal” to me, but partly I would’ve been socialistically inclined due to what my family is like, anyway.

        So yes, gladly pay for it indeed. Whenever I am dealing with American health care (or hearing about it at close hand from family) I just at so much about it. Having to think about what hospital you’re going to deal with in an emergency based on what insurance you have? (Or, for that matter, making sure to avoid Catholic-run hospitals – I don’t know if you know about that whole issue..), rather than, who is closest or offers the best care…??? It just boggles my mind and makes me want to yell at the whole country: “Guys, SRSLY, you’re doing it wrong!” – I won’t pretend that our system is perfect but it is SO MUCh less BROKEN… there are some things that the US does better than Canada, and some things that Canada does better than the US – and the healthcare system is one of the latter for sure.

      • Jayn

        I didn’t know Ontario had HST, to be honest. I thought it was just a maritime thing (I’m from NS)

        “Or, for that matter, making sure to avoid Catholic-run hospitals – I don’t know if you know about that whole issue..”

        Yup, and I told my husband that if anything happens to me while I’m pregnant to take me to the non-Catholic hospital in town. Mostly, though, I just see healthcare–and health insurance in particular–as being an area that capitalism simply fails, because it creates very perverse incentives in that market.

      • Little Magpie

        Yeah, but it’s fairly recent (maybe 4 or 5 years) – since Ontario has started slipping out of being one of the “have” (as opposed to “have not” provinces).

        I’ve visited NS for one summer vacation and enjoyed it greatly (and have a lot more cultural/historical knowledge as relating to the Cape) but I know better than to make a blanket general statement along the lines of “yeah, what a lovely province” :) – if you don’t mind me asking, purely from nosiness, whereabouts in NS were you from?

      • Jayn

        The opposite end from Cape Breton, Shelburne county (though I spent four years in Halifax for school). I’ve heard a lot of comments that it’s lovely, and I’m not about to argue :) It’s hard to beat sunset over the Atlantic.

      • Christine

        It’s 3 years this July. I liked it coming in, because it meant that I had more money. Except for my diaper service I didn’t have to switch to paying higher taxes on anything (due to the fact that it’s refundable, and farmers’ special fuel rates I wasn’t worried about it raising prices). And my HST rebate cheque is higher than the GST one.

        The rebate cheques are something to bear in mind when talking about Canadian sales taxes – there are some items which are taxed, even though they are still somewhat necessary no matter what. Things like adult clothing, fuel, etc. Yes, they are often luxuries, so they get taxed, but they are necessary enough (in small amounts) that low-taxable-income individuals/families get rebate cheques (either monthly or quarterly – they don’t label them well for direct deposit, so I’m not sure what’s what) for the federal-level sales taxes.

    • Gillianren

      Bill Gates, Sr., sponsored an initiative a couple of years ago to get a very small state income tax imposed on the highest tax bracket in Washington State. It failed, because too many people who will never in their lives qualify for it were convinced that the legislature would be able to magically expand it to cover everyone. I voted for it, and I’ve been saying for years that we need to replace our sales tax with a state income tax. I’m on disability, and I have a higher tax burden than a lot of millionaires–all because of sales tax. If you live in a state without sales tax and game the system, you pay less than I do. That isn’t fair, and I’m always pleased when people who can afford to pay so much more realize it.

      • Little Magpie

        Yeah. When I heard that little video of theirs, it made me happy: see, some of the super-rich get it!

  • kagerato

    Dictator for life, with no preconditions, is making it too easy. Since it’s only a thought experiment, though, I’ll roll with that.

    Since we’re starting from scratch, first we’ll have to describe an economy. I envision it as a mixed system of private businesses for luxuries and public workers’ cooperatives for the essentials. The government would regulate the cooperatives to ensure certain labor, remuneration, and interoperability standards, but ultimately they would be managed by the public independently. They’d handle several key sectors, including agriculture, construction, medicine, and education.

    On the other hand, the private businesses would be responsible for the arts and sciences. The hope is that this would produce more diverse results there, where creativity and experimentation is far more important than standard results.

    Unemployment would be drastically reduced by the effects and rules of the cooperatives. By law and enforced through operating practice, the coops would accept any applicants who came to work. The only legitimate reasons for dismissal (firing) would be commission of a serious crime (assault, grand theft, fraud, and a few others) or repeatedly failing to perform (measured through simple assessments that the vast majority of people could pass with some modest training). Dismissals would last for a fixed time (probably not more than a year) so that people could try more than once.

    All jobs at the cooperatives would be accompanied by initial training (unless proven experience or assessment would make it redundant). This eliminates the barrier to entry for the poor.

    Every citizen would receive a basic minimum income regardless of employment, designed to pay for food, housing, and life-saving medicines. The cooperatives would be dedicated to constantly planting, building, and synthesizing in order to keep the supply curve ahead of demand and thus economically sustainable.

    Further, all regulations would be designed specifically for safety and utility purposes alone, excluding any rules that exist only for aesthetic purposes or to promote private interests. There would be no copyrights or patents, and thus no artificial barriers to always using the best available designs. The intent here is to keep all costs down to the minimum, representing only genuine labor and resource costs.

    Preventative medical care would be at no charge. All employers, public and private, would be required to compensate sufficiently to pay for typical medical expenses. The constant influx of new doctors and nurses brought in through the medical cooperative would significantly lower the average cost of care. All existing drugs would be dirt cheap, since nearly their entire expense is in research and development. Without patents, the running cost vanishes.

    As for the tax system, it would be absurdly simpler than today. The basic minimum income is completely exempt. Starting from roughly twice that level, income taxes would be assessed. The brackets would look something like this (estimated values, obviously):

    $25,000 : 0%
    $50,000 : 10%
    $75,000 : 15%
    $150,000 : 20%
    $300,000 : 30%
    $1,000,000 : 40%
    $5,000,000 : 50%
    $25,000,000 : 60%
    $100,000,000 : 70%

    These numbers would naturally need to be keep in balance with inflation, wages, benefits, and the money supply generally. Note that they’re still marginal brackets, such that calculating the tax involves a sum of weighted values.

    As for exemptions, there are none. None whatsoever. Tax evaders beware.

    There would also be a progressive national sales tax on items exceeding a certain minimum value. For instance, 5% tax on all products and services exceeding $5000. 10% on those over $10000. Empirical adjustments would be necessary. Food, primary housing, and medicines would have relatively higher exemption caps from sales tax than everything else.

    Property taxes would be assessed, though by province/state rather than local governments. Any localized distribution to jurisdictions would be proportional to population size. Naturally, these are also progressive. However, a primary residence would be exempt unless it met a decent minimum threshold.

    That’s it. No other taxes. No use taxes, no excise taxes, no value-added taxes, no energy taxes, no tariffs, no random fees.

    As for the entire financial, insurance, and real estate sectors — eliminated. Lending is unnecessary and regressive, as the money supply can be increased by using the basic minimum income to directly provide funds. Insurance is unlikely to be of much use when the cost of living and medical care is drastically reduced to sane levels. However, any required and useful insurance programs could be setup by the government as non-profit collective funds. Real estate middlemen will not be necessary as all housing and land sales will be managed through public-private joint transactions. Without the constant pressure of private lending driving up the price, it may be that housing as a whole will be far less expensive and far more minimalistic/utilitarian.

    Transportation would be addressed through a system of high-speed rail for long distance and inter-city connections, with a combination of computer-driven cars and electric bicycles meeting all intra-city needs. Of course, this is all existing technology. Very probably, the construction cooperative would be focused on getting the infrastructure up before many other things, due to the desperate need. Without human drivers, the number of accidents would plummet and the need for auto insurance practically disappears.

    Energy infrastructure would be converted to a hybridized set of photovoltaic, solar thermal, wind, tidal, and geothermal plants with some nuclear fission reactors to top off the base load requirements. With sufficient gathering of solar energy, the average energy bill in areas near the equator should drop off substantially. Deployment of all electric intracity self-driven vehicles will drastically reduce the need for fossil fuels.

    Materials use would change, too, due to shifts in product planning. Cooperatives would use and produce as part of their mission long-lasting tools and devices with highly standardized form factors and functionality. Metal, wood, glass, carbon, and ceramics would tend to displace plastic — further reducing fossil fuel consumption in the process.

    The scope and active goals of the legal system (police and courts) would change drastically. The vast majority of all specific crimes would be eliminated, leaving a reasonably short and abstract list: murder, manslaughter, theft, rape, assault & battery, fraud, abduction & kidnapping, torture, deprivation, property destruction, harassment, aggravated contempt of court, and abuse of (official) power. Formal national definitions of each would be set, and these would apply as-is to states and provinces. (There would be no state or provincial specific crimes.)

    Some things aren’t on the crimes list because they’re just special cases of others that are. Forgery and racketeering are kinds of fraud. Hostage taking and ransom are forms of abduction and deprivation. Embezzlement is theft. Corruption is abuse of power. You get the idea. Define the crime properly, and all of the sub-crimes are prosecuted under it. There would be no minimum or maximum prison terms predefined. Instead, a judge and grand jury must agree (within certain reasonable bounds) on the harshness of the punishment.

    Others are not on the crimes list because they’re either victimless, counterproductive to prosecute, impossible to practically monitor, or violate the population’s civil rights.

    For instance, smuggling goods ought not to be a crime on its own. Typically we’re talking about drugs in that context, but it could be any illegal good. Stolen goods are handled as theft, and human trafficking is abduction. Other than that, moving your own products from place to place is simply legal. Attempts to enforce anti-smuggling laws create violent black markets which are far more trouble than they’re worth.

    Likewise, there’s no such thing as “illegal” immigration in this system. Unregistered, yes — illegal, no. You might not be able to collect certain benefits from society (such as our basic minimum income) without registering. There would be a clear path to citizenship for anyone, with an achievable set of targets. But keeping the border itself absolutely secure against migrants is unrealistic and counter-productive. We should focus on making the best use of potential new citizens rather than using as much force as possible to keep them out (or marginalized once they’ve already arrived).

    Sedition is not a crime. Treating sedition as a crime treats makes a mockery of free speech, and makes the safety of citizens dependent on the political whims of the current administration.

    Mere idle trespassing would not be a crime. If one is causing injury, property damage, or harassment then those are crimes unto themselves. However, simply being at a certain place you do not own is not an action worthy of a year of imprisonment (or more). Trespassing would still be a civil action, and police would still have authority to remove persons unwanted by the owner. Repeated transgressions would result in escalating fines. The failure to pay these fines, nor appear in court to defend oneself, would eventually result in contempt of court — and that would be a crime.

    Prostitution is not a crime. History has proven this one unenforceable on any regular/fair basis, and the police eventually give up serious attempts. There’s also substantial doubt as to whether there is any useful effect, since the criminalization tends to punish the seller far more frequently than the buyer.

    Nationalistic and political acts like espionage, treason, and terrorism wouldn’t get any special treatment. You’ll get as many counts of any other crimes you commit and nothing more. There’s no point in treating murder or theft more seriously just because someone did it with a particular cultural or political intent — in fact, it tends to antagonize the group(s) they came from even more and create a kind of tribal warring.

    Copying information would not be a crime. Ugh. Let’s not even go into that one. This post is far too long as it is.

    You might wonder what lawyers would do all day in this imagined world. I wonder, too, sometimes.

    Am I forgetting anything? Certainly. There’s an enormous amount of ground to cover; no way to address every last aspect of society in one post. So let’s end here. ^_^