Missing the forest

Atrios does a good job of capturing how I actually feel about people on the so-called center-left (most notably Larry Summers) wonkifying their way out of support for near-universal $2000 checks. They are mistaken on the narrow technocratic grounds over which they claim authority, an authority that decades of experience prove they absolutely do not deserve. But they are mistaken (or worse than mistaken) at a more fundamental level. They do not get (or if they do get, they have never deigned to address) that the point of universalist benefits isn’t to stimulate the economy, nor to maximize utility while minimizing a fiscal outlay, but to reorder the relationship between citizens, the state, and one another.

Let’s start with the most straightforward case against $2000 checks. Here’s Catherine Rampell:

Simply put, sending money to nearly every American family to ensure that help gets to the much tinier fraction who actually need it is not a terribly efficient use of resources. The payments end up being a pittance for higher-income, fully employed households, yet insufficient for the households that suffered large income losses. The error is compounded if these funds come at the expense of more targeted relief measures — such as expanded unemployment benefits, which the new law guarantees only through March.

Advocates on the left argue that there is room to do both. But even if you believe that there are no real debt constraints, given how low interest rates are, there are still political constraints. Republicans set a $900 billion cap on relief measures in the final deal, which meant that funding stimulus payments required shortchanging unemployment benefits (and state and local assistance).

First, it’s worth noting that Rampell is misleading on the facts here to help buttress her case. It is true that Republicans initially tried to cap the deal size, and so that when $600 checks were included in the current version of the relief bill, the funds were clawed away from other uses. However, the cost of a potential increase from $600 to $2000 was never proposed to be taken from elsewhere. What Republicans like Donald Trump and Josh Hawley proposed was to simply increase the size of the bill.

Rampell is taking a constraint as given, immutable if not by hard economics then by hardball politics, even when by the time she wrote, the constraint was already contested within the political caucus supposedly imposing it. But political constraints are endogenous, and the very purpose of universalism is to reshape them. It blows my mind that Rampell quotes an estimate that the proposed checks would benefit 94% of US households like that is a bad thing. If you believe (as I think Rampell does!) that a just and functional polity will require a larger state footprint in fiscal affairs (which need not not imply bigger deficits, but larger gross outlays which may or may not be matched with offsetting taxes) then surely the program’s benefiting lots and lots of people should be scored a plus!

If you imagine you are the wise planner, given $400B-ish to spend as you choose, then yes, maybe you could do more good with some allocation other than universal-ish checks. But who is living in political fantasyland in this thought experiment? The $400B only exists as potentially allocable money because universal outlays are popular. And a state that typically provides benefits on universal terms will be popular in general, relaxing constraints on further state action — on outlays, but also on progressive taxation, which the state’s beneficence will render more palatable. And progressive taxation will help target net benefits, despite untargeted outlays, relieving economic (as opposed to political) constraints on state action, while also countering democracy-corroding wealth concentration and improving the predistribution. It’s win-win-win!

Paul Krugman writes

No binding budget constraint for the feds, so this is all about politics. And my sense is that broad issuance of checks is actually kind of a loss leader, helping to sell a package that includes UI

At the time he wrote this, still-too-stingy UI had already been passed and signed into law as part of the relief package, and no further expansion was on any political horizon. So maybe original the $600 was the sugar for a broader public to help make more desperate medicine go down, but, as with Rampell, there’s this reluctance to acknowledge that universal benefits might be worthwhile on their own terms because the space of the politically possible expands when broadly everyone is a beneficiary. An increase now from $600 to $2000 wouldn’t be a “loss leader” for any other thing. It would, however, increase the public’s satisfaction with and broad enthusiasm for government and therefore increase the probability that America rediscover’s the virtues of collective action in some broadly general interest, without which we face an apocalypse.

Technocratic authority so often just gives cover to myopia. It’s easy enough to compare different allocations of a hypothetical $400B, and sound smart dissing the “untargeted” one as suboptimal. It can be gratifyingly technical to compute (under tendentious assumptions) little cost-benefit analyses, one controversy at a time, taking the horizons of any deeper future as given, immutable as a lazy shorthand for unknowable. That is a way of sounding smart while being stupid. It has gotten us just where we are.

Judged not as a one-off, but as precedent and practice, universalism is good policy on technocratic grounds. Myopic optimization in response to every shock scrambles incentives (as people try to account for ways their actions might place them in or remove them from classes that will seem worthy of assistance). It creates embittered losers every time, people who feel deserving of aid but whom policymakers decide (optimally or arbitrarily) to exclude. In practice ad hoc optimization is gamed (see, for example, the contemporary PPP program), leading to widespread perception, and also the reality, of corruption, further discrediting government action. The Obama-ites thought their financial crisis response was “smart”, putting out fires while putting wooly concerns about justice and power to the side. It was optimal in the same way that the next dose of heroin is optimal for an addict. It’s true, after all, that absent a dose, the addict will get very sick! We need a theory of state action that is effective at addressing current crises — even profound crises like COVID and the 2008 financial collapse — while supporting rather than undermining social cohesion and the legitimacy of the state. Universalism is that theory.

In the previous post, I wondered: If we now conceive of racism as systemic and institutional, rather than individual and personal, could we also do the same for love? Universalism is one way of embedding unconditional love in the shape of our institutions. The warmth of our civilization flows to all, not in the form of threadbare assistance to those who prove they “deserve” it, but as benefits that we all share. It’s the contribution to this social foundation that we’d means-test, through the tax system. One can imagine, neoliberally, that taxation to support a generous universal foundation would so blunt incentives to produce that we’d collapse to destitution. Have you noticed, neoliberally, that we are already in collapse due to precarity, social resentment, incapacity to manage conflicts and coordinate through government? Is it really inadequate incentives to succeed that are holding back our advances, technological and otherwise, or the fact foregoing a career at McKinsey or Google to do something interesting is just too risky, given how precariously we all live, how far there is to fall? Universal benefits are popular because they are actually good, in both a technocratic and ethical sense. They are opposed by incumbent interests not because they would fail, but because they might succeed.

I’ll let Atrios have the last word:

[T]hey would prefer plunging the economy into a deeper recession and the misery of millions of people on the off chance people might realize government is actually capable of doing things for them.


9 Responses to “Missing the forest”

  1. Effem writes:

    Vote for the establishment…and you get the establishment. Shocking, I know.

  2. Detroit Dan writes:

    Very well thought out and expressed!!!

  3. Kien writes:

    Without taking away from other arguments in favour of a universal income, I would like to argue that UI could help end secular stagnation. But what I like most about UI is that it removes the stigma associated with social support benefits.

  4. zach writes:

    @kien But, it still cements the inherent value of a person as related to their ability at some point to earn market wages.

  5. rick shapiro writes:

    I can’t disagree that political considerations make a universal distribution more possible than a targeted distribution; but you have omitted one significant point in favor of striving to make the distribution more targeted: Because a large majority of income (wages, pensions, SS) has been undiminished by the crisis, the bulk of the universal distribution will be saved, not spent, thereby inflating asset prices, but doing nothing for the economy.

  6. Zach writes:

    @RickShapiro this just argues for taxes and that can be done after.

  7. ricardo2000 writes:

    If it wasn’t already obvious, government COVID supports go to corrupt business interests instead of watering and fertilizing the economic roots of society: its citizens. Letting citizens decide how to spend the money looks too much like free enterprise capitalism, or socialism, to those who rule the world.
    H.L. Mencken: “The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.”

    H.L. Mencken: ‘Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.’

    Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

  8. Patrick Carter writes:

    This is great but is there a suspicion of fantasy land in the progressive taxation component of the argument?

  9. Sammler writes:

    Hi, I’m back to offer a Small Red Pill.


    The particular audience is Democratic partisans who consider themselves intellectually honest. (Not Paul Krugman.)