Basic income: Easier said than done

The BC expert panel on basic income has released a briefing paper on the considerations for basic income as a COVID-19 response. The members of the panel are David Green, professor at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia, Jonathan Rhys Kesselman, professor emeritus at the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University, and Lindsay Tedds, Scientific Director of the Fiscal and Economic Policy program at the School of Public Policy and an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Calgary.

PolitiCoast spoke with Dr Tedds in advance of the release of the paper today. Listen to that interview now.

In their paper, the three authors lay out the questions that need to be answered before a basic income program can be designed and implemented. Mainstream and social media discourse around basic income tends to discuss the idea as if it were a single, and often quite simple, program. Based on their review of thousands of research papers on the topic, the authors conclude that the popular concept does not reflect the realities of designing and implementing a basic income.

However, in the current vigorous debate, it is our view, based on nearly two years of work on the topic, that crucial considerations are being swept aside as some commentators — both advocates and critics of a basic income — depict it in simple terms.

David Green, Rhys Kesselman and Lindsay Tedds

A basic income is significantly more complex than it is generally perceived as being. There are a multitude of policy choices that have significant impacts on the shape of the program and its effectiveness at addressing its goals.

The debate over whether or not it’s a good concept, I mean, we need to move beyond that. We need to roll up our sleeves and really tackle the really fundamental issues and we need to have this within an understanding of what is a basic income and what are its principles. A basic income is not just another cash transfer.

Lindsay Tedds in an interview with PolitiCoast

The panel presents six categories of questions for basic income proponents, and opponents, to tackle:

  1. What overarching principles define a basic income policy?
  2. What specifically is the objective?
  3. What are the details of the basic income program design?
  4. What is the cost of the program and what, if any, other tax and benefit program changes would be made to finance the program?
  5. How would the introduction of a basic income, together with any consequential changes to other programs, affect the behaviour of individuals, employers and other actors in the economy?
  6. Is a basic income the best way to achieve the stated objectives, or are there alternative programs or other reforms that could be made that could achieve similar objectives?

Within those categories there are multiple important questions, whose answers will shape the form of any basic income program enacted.

The paper does not answer these questions. Answering them will be the work of the panel, as well as politicians and policy makers, should a decision to adopt a basic income be made. 

You can do a lot of things with a basic income and every single thing that you choose has trade-offs. And they’re hard trade-offs. They’re complex trade-offs.

Lindsay Tedds in an interview with PolitiCoast

The panel has reviewed the extensive literature on basic income; however, it has found significant gaps in the research. As part of their work, the panel has commissioned over 40 research papers from researchers at multiple institutions in order to gain further knowledge of the considerations for a basic income beyond what currently exists in the academic literature.

The panel is currently finalizing its draft and intends to submit its final report by the end of the year. All of its work will be released on a public website after that.

When I say draft, it’ll be a draft that is still going to have to have some of the details pumped into it as we’re slowly getting some of these pieces in. And it is possible that as we get more of those pieces in that we could change our minds without a shadow of a doubt.

Lindsay Tedds in an interview with PolitiCoast

Dr Tedds, and the authors, are ambivalent about the prospects of a basic income, instead choosing to press for deeper thinking about the subject rather than simplistic talking points.

Do I have an opinion on a basic income? No. I can argue any side. And the more you take an opinion, the more I’ll push you on what are your fundamental assumptions and what are you basing that on? And are they deep enough to launch a system off of?

Lindsay Tedds in an interview with PolitiCoast

For more information, listen to our interview with Dr Lindsay Tedds or read BC Today’s interview with Dr Tedds.

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