At RSF, our belief, one in which we advocate, is that each and every person in the United States has a right to enjoy a basic quality of life; a quality of life that reflects the incredible technological advances and economic wealth this country possesses. This belief envisions a reality in stark contrast to our current, COVID-19 dominated reality: a reality characterized by unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression, angry protesters defying social distancing guidelines to come together and demand the “reopening” of America, and individuals and families at all socioeconomic levels grappling with what it means to live in a world in which the need to return to work and desire to see friends and family may be fulfilled at the immediate cost of human lives.
Much of the response that is required in this time will come from knowledge and guidance of the medical community: adequate testing, contact tracing, a vaccine. These interventions will be critical to our ability to protect ourselves, re-start our economy and get acclimated to a new normal.
A policy-based complement––an economic vaccine, analogously speaking, must also be implemented in order to sustain the United States’ economic health while addressing this unparalleled public health crisis. We need a policy that is capable of addressing the most fundamental fears and answering to the needs this pandemic has engendered. Such a policy will be capable of providing solutions to the questions that drive protesters into the streets and keep so many up late at night in the quiet of their homes: How will I pay my rent? How will I feed myself and my family? Even if I don’t get sick, how will I/we make it through this?
We need a Universal Basic Income (UBI).
The idea that an equal, recurring cash payment would be made to all members of society is nothing new, even in the United States. Alaskans receive such a benefit through their petroleum-financed Permanent Fund, and many have referred to the one-time disbursements through the CARES Act as a sort of UBI primer and as evidence that such a policy might be feasible in the U.S.
As an organization, we believe that now is the time for a UBI. We understand that not just any UBI will do, because if financed incorrectly––for example, through income or sales tax, any benefits such a policy might produce will be quickly swallowed up by increases in real estate prices and other resource rents. This, inevitably, puts more in the pockets of the privileged few and leaves the general public no better off than before. How should we pay for a UBI and how much should it be?
By collecting resource rents we can afford to give every American $1,000 every month, in perpetuity.
For some, this amount may seem unrealistically large, whereas, for those familiar with Andrew Yang’s recent bid for the presidency, it may be very reasonable. Regardless, understanding where this number comes from is key to understanding how it could be made a reality right now, when it is needed most. Understanding where this number comes from is likewise key to guaranteeing that this UBI would permanently improve quality of life, rather than simply resetting the financial baseline.
The key, therefore, to creating a successful UBI is in how it is financed. Specifically, it must be paid for through the full capture of land rent in the United States, which is estimated to be about $2.4 trillion annually. This number represents the major portion of the funds needed to support the program, but additional money could and should also come from a $50/ton tax on carbon emissions (which would yield approximately $141 billion in public revenue annually), as well as from savings realized as the benefits of other forms of public assistance (accounting for another $323 billion per year) are replaced by UBI payments.
We understand that today people are desperate for solutions. Solutions that would allow us to return to work and school. To return to a sense of social and economic normalcy. But while we wait on the scientific and medical communities to provide us with the specific solutions to address COVID-19, we have an opportunity to enact a more generalized social remedy, an economic vaccine, as we said, that will safeguard our nation in this time of extraordinary stress and provide benefits in the form of increased equity and overall quality of life. Our plan is one that will continue to benefit ALL long after we have bested COVID-19.
This economic vaccine, which we propose and for which we advocate, is a Universal Basic Income financed through resource rents. And the time to enact it is now.