Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton's Flirtation with the Universal Basic Income

She thought about making it a campaign plank but backed down for fear of "cannibalizing" other programs.


Here's an unexpected nugget of news in Hillary Clinton's new memoir: At the outset of her last presidential campaign, she thought about calling for a universal basic income. But she rejected the idea when she realized the only ways to afford it involved either "a lot of new taxes" or "cannibalizing other important programs."

Here is the relevant passage from the book, via Vox:

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Before I ran for President, I read a book called With Liberty and Dividends for All: How to Save Our Middle Class When Jobs Don't Pay Enough, by Peter Barnes, which explored the idea of creating a new fund that would use revenue from shared national resources to pay a dividend to every citizen, much like how the Alaska Permanent Fund distributes the state's oil royalties every year. Shared national resources include oil and gas extracted from public lands and the public airwaves used by broadcasters and mobile phone companies, but that gets you only so far. If you view the nation's financial system as a shared resource, then you can start raising real money from things like a financial transactions tax. Same with the air we breathe and carbon pricing.

Once you capitalize the fund, you can provide every American with a modest basic income every year. Besides cash in people's pockets, it would also be a way of making every American feel more connected to our country and to one another—part of something bigger than ourselves. I was fascinated by this idea, as was my husband, and we spent weeks working with our policy team to see if it could be viable enough to include in my campaign. We would call it "Alaska for America." Unfortunately, we couldn't make the numbers work. To provide a meaningful dividend each year to every citizen, you'd have to raise enormous sums of money, and that would either mean a lot of new taxes or cannibalizing other important programs. We decided it was exciting but not realistic, and left it on the shelf. That was the responsible decision. I wonder now whether we should have thrown caution to the wind and embraced "Alaska for America" as a long-term goal and figured out the details later.

The basic income has libertarian fans too, but in liberland "cannibalizing" other arms of the government is a feature, not a bug. You replace a bunch of separate bureaucracies with a single, simpler, less intrusive, and (if the numbers work out right) cheaper program. That's the big draw. I don't suppose it's news that Hillary Clinton isn't Milton Friedman, but it's telling that she saw this as a dealbreaker.

It's possible that another Democrat will embrace some version of the basic income in the 2020 race. But not Joe Biden: Today the former vice president published a blog post attacking the idea. Instead of cutting checks with no strings attached, Biden wrote, the government should be "recognizing that 12 years of school is [sic] no longer enough" and putting more money into job retraining.

Bonus link: For a deep dive into the history and prospects of the basic income, in all its mutually exclusive incarnations, see my story on the subject in the July Reason.