UBI, Shopping, and San Francisco

  • Another take on the idea of “universal basic income”;
  • About conservative supermarket shopping habits;
  • San Francisco’s ranking among world cities.

Another take on the idea of “universal basic income,” the counter-intuitive (and anathema to conservatives) notion than the government simply hand out money to its citizens, at least the low-income ones. I’ve seen it called by other terms; ‘social dividend’ was one, I think. Alaska already does this (due to the bounty of the state’s rich oil reserves — every resident of the state gets a check each year). The idea makes sense in two ways. The government already takes in taxes, and then spends it on many things including infrastructure — highways and bridges and whatnot — not to mention huge amounts on “defense” and social programs. At one time some Republicans wanted to take the funds allocated to food stamps, or SNAP or whatever it’s been called, and spend those funds *for* the recipients, by determined precisely which foods they thought the poor *should* be eating, and sending some sort of food box to them periodically, rather than letting the poor decide for themselves how to spend that benefit. Talk about government micromanagement! Similarly, why not take a sliver out of the government’s expenditures and instead of spending it for infrastructure and so on, on behalf of the citizens, just take that sliver and give it to the poor to let them decide how to spend it. Yes, it’s a form of redistribution, but it might go a long way toward mediating the extreme inequality that exists today, with trillionaires making more every year however they can (cf. Republican Party) while increasing number of homeless live on the streets.

The second way it makes sense is that idea of a “dividend.” Harari and many others have noted that advancing technology is putting people out of work. The total wealth that society generates stays the same, or expands, because society is becoming more efficient, automated, and computerized, and so needs fewer people to do the work. So why not spread the benefits to everyone? Conservatives, who think the worst of everyone, will say that hand-outs make people lazy, but the evidence, again and again, shows that this simply is not true.

Now let’s see what this new article says.

Vox, Oshan Jarow, 13 Oct 2023: Basic income is less radical than you think, subtitled “A world with basic income is one of less poverty and higher taxes, not utopia or collapse.”

I’ve been following debates on guaranteed income for almost a decade, and one thing that’s stood out is that universal basic income (UBI), a regular cash payment to all citizens with no strings attached, is like a Rorschach test.

Some people see UBI as a “capitalist road to communism” or a world free of work. Others see everything from a means of unleashing the population’s creative potential to a policy that would undermine human agency and erode “psychological capital.” Some see it as a way to shore up the welfare state. Others, a way to bulldoze it.

In part, that’s because unless you pin down the details, basic income is too vague to mean anything politically concrete. Like the Rorschach inkblot, you can interpret and design UBI in an endless variety of ways. A program that provides $250 per month is a different ballgame than one providing $1,200 per month. The same goes for one that replaces all other welfare, like food aid (sometimes referred to as a “pure UBI,” which would actually leave the most disadvantaged worse off, and is a bad idea), compared with one that complements existing programs.

Ultimately, the effects of any income guarantee hinge on the details. How much does it pay? Who gets it? How’s it financed? How does it relate to the rest of the welfare state? But most of the real proposals that have made their way through the policy world share a noteworthy trait: When the dust settles, they just wouldn’t be that radical, in either direction.

Generally, most people at the bottom of the income ladder would be better off, those in the middle would break even as they pay about as much in higher taxes as they’d receive from the basic income, and those at the top would be a little worse off. Society would neither ascend into utopian communism nor collapse into bleak idleness. There would just be less poverty and higher taxes.

I see this as good news. If basic income won’t be the silver bullet that changes — or destroys — society, it becomes something far more politically tractable: a moderately effective policy, albeit one with trade-offs, that is well worth considering.

The article goes on with many more details and examples.

And concluding,

Radical ideas have their place. They can stretch our collective imagination, and keep us from falling victim to the belief that there are no fundamental alternatives to the present arrangement of our world. But basic income doesn’t have to be one of them, and shedding that association offers at least two payoffs.

It could bring basic income further into the realm of pragmatic policy analysis, where wonks of all stripes present their views on whether or not the programs’ tradeoffs are worth it. Second, for those who want to elevate their sights on radical possibilities that might exceed political realities, why not dream bigger?


Nothing new here, but it fits with the item above.

Salon, Ashlie D. Stevens, 16 Oct 2023: Want to know more about how conservatives really think? Look in their grocery carts, subtitled “A new study found conservatives have a “lower openness to experience” — and it impacts what they buy”

Conservatives align ideology with certain products; they are indifferent to matters of food waste; and so on.

To expand upon their findings, the study authors point to a 2007 study titled “Are needs to manage uncertainty and threat associated with political conservatism or ideological extremity?” in which the authors wrote that liberals largely prefer social change, equality, progress and flexibility while conservatives anchor on inequality, tradition and stability.

So, how can this new knowledge be leveraged to ultimately reduce food waste and alleviate food insecurity? The study authors suggest that it could inform the messaging around selling imperfect produce. In blue states, or blue dots in otherwise red states, supermarkets may want to advertise using appeals to sustainability, authenticity and food waste.

However, in markets where the clientele veers more conservative, supermarkets may want to try tapping into a sense of tradition, with a message like: “Most produce was imperfect decades ago!” Whether a similar appeal — perhaps going super traditional with “Jesus wouldn’t let anyone go hungry” — will work on the House floor this year remains to be seen.


An item about San Francisco. One more tomorrow.

World’s Best Cities

I saw this item because it was promoted by the San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco is #7, after London, Paris, New York, Tokyo, Singapore, Dubai; followed by Barcelona, Amsterdam, Seoul, Rome, and on and on. Los Angeles is #15. Here’s the site’s methodology

With this frank appraisal.

The golden city has been deeply wounded economically—by the pandemic, the lack of affordable housing and violence unimaginable a few years ago.

Despite San Francisco’s meticulously documented challenges, job opportunities and infrastructure buildout pave the way as the world continues to rush in like it always has. Its #5 ranking in our overall Prosperity index is driven by high salaries that draw global workers who rank the sixth most educated on the planet. No wonder San Francisco ranks #33 for Global 500 Companies. In fact, the Bay Area remains the number one place for start-up innovation, powered by venture capital kept interested in the city’s famed “ecosystem”—for talent, for research and for universities.

In Henley & Partners and New World Wealth’s “World’s Wealthiest Cities Report 2023,” San Francisco ranked third, tied with London and after New York and Tokyo, with 285,000 residing here in 2022.

Still, the city is in a crisis not seen in decades. Population decline was the worst among large U.S. counties between July 2020 and July 2022 (although it’s slowed recently). Equally terrifying, the city’s office vacancy fluctuates at around 30%. Even the proudest locals wring their hands as companies leave for Austin and Florida. And then tweet about how you should, too.

Undeterred, local leaders are rolling out the most daring bike and pedestrian infrastructure in America and the protected bike network now boasts 464 miles of bikeways, including 50 miles of new car-free/car-light streets in the past year alone. The aggressive pursuit of outdoor public spaces—from downtown’s new Salesforce Park, 70 feet above street level atop the roof of the Salesforce Transit Center, to the half-dozen parks, tunnels and spaces opened last year in the Presidio alone (including Presidio Tunnel Tops, a 14-acre park built over the Presidio Parkway highway tunnels)—was a clinic in city-building opportunism that will pay dividends for decades.

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