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UBI: Certain Conditions Apply



In Canada, certain conditions apply to the unconditional and not everyone qualifies for universal benefits. [version française]

The Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) defines a Basic Income as a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.

I don't think this idea will ever be fully implemented in Canada nor anywhere else in the world. This causes me little concern because UBI will forever exhibit the traces of its origins in the very imperfect social safety net we have today and have always had. Human institutions evolve from common ancestors: two very different policies are still linked by evolutionary history. A horse's leg corresponds to the bones in our middle toe, not the same function at all, yet equivalent from an evolutionary point of view.


There are no social programs in Canada that are universal. Some condition always applies to reduce the amount and eventually eliminate the benefit completely. This is quite apart from any discussion of whether the program is sufficient, necessary, or even appropriate.

When Canada implemented income tax in 1917 one of the features of this temporary program was the personal exemption: $1,500 for singles and $3,000 for others, $24,500 and $50,000, in today's dollars. While this benefit was cash, it was hardly a transfer, since you just got to keep some of the money you already had. It was individual, a couple getting twice the benefit of an individual. It was unconditional in the sense that there were no strings attached, no work requirement, no declaration of any means (property or possessions) other than income. It was universal, except that the amount depended on revenue. The 4% of earnings on the first $1,500 dwindled to nothing if you had no income.


Fast forward 99 years to when the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) was introduced in 2016. Today we distinguish between reimbursable tax deductions and non-reimbursable tax deductions. The personal exemption is one of the later. Benefits only pay down your tax burden. You get no benefit if you pay no income tax. The Canada Child Benefit is one of the former and is a bona fide Basic Income.

The Canada Child Benefit (CCB)

The Canada Child Benefit is paid out even if no income tax is due. It is clearly a cash transfer.


Is the CCB universal? It's paid to all families with children. Or is that all children with families? Of course you can't send a monthly cheque to a toddler. The caregiver receives the money with no strings attached. When Universal Basic Income is distributed to all adults, its universality is never questioned in proposals such as BIEN’s or Andrew Yang. Is restricting the benefit to children less legitimate because they are dependents? In fact, children “without families,” that is “maintained by an agency” also receive the benefit. The amounts are identical; just the name of the program changes. I think that this settles the question: it is a benefit for children, not a benefit for families with children.


Is the CCB individual? If you consider that it's paid to families, then no. If, however, as I argue, it benefits individual children and is just turned over to their caregivers, then yes.


Is the CCB unconditional? All social programs have some condition which excludes some recipients or reduces benefits. Universality and unconditionality are inextricably linked.

Both arise from a desire to allocate or distribute ostensibly scarce resources according to the opposing principles of fairness and efficiency. The issue is presented as a trade-off: Either the quantities are sufficient to fulfill the needs of the recipients and not everyone receives the benefit or everybody receives a diminished allocation and no one has enough.

The application of such conditions which eliminate recipients or slash benefits is what is referred to as means-testing. This exists in Canada. The welfare system is the classic example. Benefits are cut dollar for dollar if your earnings exceed a paltry threshold. For example, in Quebec, welfare provides $690 per month: 29.6% of what it takes to avoid poverty. Any earning above $200 is deducted 100% from your cheque. The welfare system intrudes into your private life: a couple receives 29% less than two individuals, so undeclared roommates are committing fraud, as far as the authorities are concerned.

Another way of distributing scarce resources is what is known in Canada as income testing. Benefits depend on how much revenue you declare on your income tax returns, which brings us back to the personal exemption of 1917.


You may not agree that this taxation feature qualifies as an embryonic social program and find it far-fetched to call it a cash transfer. Identity of form and function is not required to establish evolutionary kinship.

Means-Testing vs. Income-Testing


Means-testing and income-testing certainly have the same ancestor: the need for a fair and efficient distribution of putative scarce resources. In form they are virtually identical yet in the Canadian context, their function could not be more different.


Means-testing is a human activity whereby a bureaucrat gathers information on helpless and vulnerable people to determine how little they deserve. It is directed specifically at lower-earning people to make sure that they don't receive more than they deserve. It is an evil system in which, if you are not destitute enough, requires that you divest of your property or savings regardless of your interests. Means-testing is a social policy tool reserved for those living in poverty and designed to punish them for their condition.


Income-testing is an algorithm which applies in the same way to everyone based on tax returns. The testing part of income-testing is achieved through tax self-reporting. Canadians don't consider filing your income tax as an invasion of their private life. In any case, the government already knows how much tax you've paid because your employer turns over your tax deductions to the authorities every month and has been doing so since 1943. Revenue Canada doesn't know or care what you do with your take-home pay nor tell you how to spend it. Unlike with means-testing, there is no stigma attached to phasing out benefits for the rich.


No one questions the practice of taxing back from the rich funds equivalent to the Canada Child Benefit from which they derive no important advantage and thereby recover some of the cost of a program which is immensely useful for everybody else. Conscientious objectors to means-testing will insist that even when this clawback is done specifically for the purpose of recouping UBI payments, it does not infringe on the principle of universality because it is done in separate operations, the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. In Canada, we tend to view this as an elaborate and unnecessary fiction. Covering up the mechanism does little to hide the process, which serves no other purpose than to claw back UBI from the rich.


In the FAQS page of BIEN, under the caption: “WHY PAY MONEY TO THE RICH WHEN THEY DON'T NEED IT?” we read:


  • It is efficient to pay the same level of income to everybody of the same age and then tax it back from those who don’t need it. The alternative is to means-test incomes so that only those who are poor receive them: but that results in complexity, stigma, errors, fraud, and intrusive bureaucratic interference in people’s lives.”

First of all, “those who don’t need it” is a very unfortunate choice of words. There is no more reason to ask the rich than the poor to justify their needs, as means-testing does. Only the poor bear the brunt of the evils of means-testing. “Taxing back,” never questions your needs. That is all that “income-testing” is.


This distinction between means-testing and income testing is not hotly debated within BIEN: Most mainstream member philosophers and economists dismiss it out of hand, considering both concepts violations of the principles of universality and unconditionality. I can’t accept this argument because it is based on concepts which aren’t actually found in the real world.


UBI vs. NIT


Another thorny issue in the Basic Income community which may seem quibbling to the uninitiated is the distinction between Universal Basic Income and the Negative Income Tax. Every party to the debate agrees that in terms of net income in the pocket of the beneficiary, these measures are identical. Also, their net cost to the state is also the same. Finally, both programs can be engineered so that the beneficiary is unable to tell the difference. Doesn’t that make all discussion of their relative merits moot? Perhaps I am missing something. Let me quote Davide Tondani in full:


  • From the distributive point of view, the constraint of equal spending leads to distributive outcomes where NIT is effective at the bottom of the distribution, while UBI also distributes income to the middle incomes. This seems to suggest that in NIT, a minority of “poor” citizens are financed by people with middle and high pre-tax income. In UBI, a minority of wealthier citizens redistribute part of their income to people with lower incomes. Greater efficiency in fighting poverty by NIT and the presence of high marginal tax rates on low incomes reduces the labour supply formed by the same individuals. On the other hand, in UBI the lower benefits for poor people associated with lower marginal tax rate provide an incentive for low-income people to participate to the labour market. Preference for NIT seems to favour redistribution towards a wider range of low-income people. In the absence of a legal constraint to accept a job offered by the government, no personal effort in terms of a more intensive labour supply is required from these individuals. Opposite to this is a model of “residual welfare,” UBI on the other hand is less efficient in raising low incomes, but is more sensitive to inequality and social inclusion, and supporting labour supply and citizenship.—page 18

Tondani comments further on how identical outcomes can arise from divergent aims:

  • Although NIT and UBI policies tend to lead to very similar, if not identical, distributive outcomes there is great epistemological difference between the two. Treating them as equal can thus lead to the risk of very real confusion about the real distributive aims of the policy maker.”Tondani page 44

So there is no confusion about outcomes, only the aims of the policy-maker. I don’t see why motivation is relevant when outcomes are identical. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it might as well be paved with bad ones.

Shouldn’t good policy even backed by bad intentions be preferred over bad policy supported by good ones?

Scarcity vs. Policy

A final point about scarcity. The paucity of resources is often presented as a fact. It's actually a policy decision, a choice of priorities.

A frequently heard argument is that if you give resources to those who don't need them and provide free services for those who can afford to pay for them, you are depriving others who don't have the resources and can't afford the services. This argument only works if the resources and the services are scarce. This is not a question of objective fact. Scarcity is a question of political choice, the setting of priorities. For example, public housing could be more abundant if battleships and fighter jets were scarcer.

Rarely is the rationing of a resource inevitable. We live in a world of abundance and unequal distribution.

Conclusion

What social programs are, the intentions behind them, and their history is of little importance in comparison to what they do.


As I have argued, the Canada Child Benefit is a Canadian-flavoured Basic Income which is as close as it gets to a UBI in the real world. It is universal because all humans go through childhood, it is individual because strictly based on headcount and it is unconditional because you don’t have to do anything special to deserve it, and you can do with it as you please, no questions asked. Furthermore, it is a regular, predictable, cash transfer paid monthly, for which you can sign up before you are even born. Does it deviate in some way from the ideal, orthodox form of Basic Income? Of course! Where do we find ideal forms in the real world?

Some will claim the Child Benefit is not important as a putative example of a UBI or will argue that the Child Benefit is not close enough to being a UBI to qualify as such. How close is close enough? What constitutes important? There is no objective way to decide these questions. The statement is not falsifiable.

Will calling the CCB a Basic Income hurt the brand and confuse people about what a Basic Income really is? The confusion has nothing to do with the shortcomings of the Canada Child Credit as a Basic Income. Every example helps sell the concept, regardless of deviations from the ideal. And the more familiar the public is with Basic Income, the more likely it will spot the points to improve in existing implementations such as the CCB. It is the scarcity of real examples to point to that makes it difficult for people to establish connections. The more examples you find, the better people will understand. Far from confusing people, a consistent terminology with variegated examples will help crystallize the concept in peoples’ minds.

Basic Income is not something that can be summed up in a definition, it is a living thing, constantly adapting to a changing local environment. It is less man-made than responsive to conditions. Certain conditions apply.