Solutions wanted: No matter where they come from

For many, universal basic income veers toward socialism. But what if solutions were measured by their effects rather than their political affiliation?

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
Susie Garza, a Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration participant, poses at home in Stockton, California, Aug. 14, 2019.

Take this statement: It is a good thing for people to have economic security and better access to employment opportunities. That is a universal statement, I would argue. You can be Republican or Democrat, white or Black, male or female, but most likely you agree with it. At The Christian Science Monitor we invest heavily in journalism that examines proposed solutions through an apolitical lens. Done well, it gets to questions and ideals on which we can all agree.  

What is interesting, however, is how invested we can become in the lens used to approach answers to such questions. We often choose teams – capitalism or socialism or libertarianism or progressivism or what have you – and then think the question can only be answered our way, consistent with the ideals of the team we have chosen. But viewed logically, that’s silly. So long as the solution is not unethical or harmful, why should we care which team answered the problem? We should just want it answered, and if it isn’t consistent with our “-ism,” maybe we should instead drop our -ism.

The Monitor Weekly's April 5 cover story on universal basic income is a prime example. On the -ism spectrum, it would probably come in as veering toward socialism and progressivism. But there’s a different measure that I would argue is far more relevant: proof. 

Honest researchers are studying the potential solutions we come up with every day. When it comes to making people’s lives better, where a particular program or idea sits on the political spectrum doesn’t actually matter that much. What matters is: Does it work?

In our efforts to improve economic security and create better access to opportunity for more people, does universal basic income work, or doesn’t it? At this point, we don’t know. So we’ve got to test it. Early indications are that some efforts are proving promising. 

An experiment in Stockton, California, showed that giving distressed households $500 a month enabled recipients to weather unexpected expenses and to assist extended family members and others in the community. Participants “were also more likely to have found full-time work in the first year of the experiment than the control group,” notes The Economist. Giving people money, it turned out, did not make them lazier, as some have speculated. It allowed them to invest in training and other long-term benefits.   

This doesn’t mean universal basic income is a cure-all. It just suggests we should find out more about when it does and doesn’t work. Research from recent decades has encouraged us to look differently at issues such as race and economic privilege, among many other things. It suggests that if we want to solve problems, we need to look at them through fresh eyes. How can we rekindle a thriving middle class? How can we lift areas struggling with chronic poverty? The engine of capitalism has created tremendous wealth. But it clearly can be improved. There is more to learn. And we learn best by fighting the temptation to classify ideas into warring camps, and instead honestly asking: What works? 

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