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Phil's Rambling Rants
September 21st, 2006
08:15 pm


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Social Safety Nets
billroper wrote a post about social safety nets that reminds me of some thoughts I've had bouncing around in my head.  Here's the section that triggered my thinking; hopefully I'm not doing Bill a disservice by pulling these two paragraphs out.

But what if the social safety net is really, really good?  What if life on the dole was so comfortable that there was no real incentive to work?  There'd be some people who would work, just because they love what they do.  But how many folks out there really do love what they do?  And how many people who do love what they do would love doing something else even more, except for the fact that they actually like eating regularly?

Now, how good does the social safety net have to be before it's better than a bad job? And what happens if you have multiple generations of a family that have become dependent on the social safety net, because it is better than the bad jobs that are available to them?  Nothing good, I suspect.

Bill seems to be taking the position that it would be bad in principle for people to not feel a need to work, whether or not they can get paid for doing something they feel is a worthy use of their time.  And with all due respect, I disagree.  I think I understand where he's coming from.  It is good for people to actually do something with their lives and damaging for them to spend their whole lives lying on the couch.  But when people are forced to do work that is not fulfilling and meaningful in and of itself (and not just for the paycheck), I think is at least as damaging to the people, and it is also damaging to whatever endeavor they are doing just for the money.  A year ago, I wrote an entry examining this idea at length, and I won't reprise it extensively now.

But the bottom line for me is that I think it is, in fact, a desirable goal to have a "safety net" that is better than working a bad job.  The tricky question is whether we can really get there.  Throughout human history, there have been people who had an idea similar to this, but their way of making it work is to only extend the freedom to decline working to certain privileged people, while requiring another group of people to do the jobs that nobody likes to do but that still need to be done.  But technology actually allows us to imagine a world where machines do all those unpleasant jobs, and in the process create all the material wealth needed to support the whole population, if need be, on the dole.  And that's the world I'd like to live in, so it's the world I think we should be trying to work toward.

Obviously, I don't think we could just snap our fingers and implement this system.  We don't yet have the technological infrastructure for our civilization to continue if everybody who does nasty menial jobs can quit and still have the material lifestyle that a nasty menial job wins a person today.  But I think we should be consciously making policy to steer towards such a future.  Certainly a good place to start would be to have a genuine guarantee that everyone would have access to real medical care regardless of their ability to pay.  Put in incentives to develop and deploy the kind of automation that means phasing out mind-numbing, hazardous, and disgusting jobs.  And ultimately, work toward correcting our current fiscal crisis by phasing out all the current entitlement programs and replacing them with a single financial subsidy that goes to every citizen.  It might not work out financially until the nanotechnology that we're just beginning to see faint hints of outside of science fiction really takes off, but I think it's worth working toward.

As a sort of a feasibility thought experiment, imagine that we have a decent national health care system where everyone has free medical care with a service level like that's provided with a normal middle-class job's health benefits (but without the copayments), and that everybody is getting a direct $500 a month payment from Uncle Sam.  I think that's a level where most people would prefer to work if they could find something they didn't hate, but not working would be a livable, if uncomfortable option.  To pay for it, the existing income and payroll taxes are scrapped, and all money that individuals bring in (other than the $500/month) is taxed at a flat rate.  How high does the flat rate have to be to pay for everyone's monthly check plus the rest of government?  I propose the notion that that's the very rough outline of the system we should work towards, and how the flat rate that makes the budget balance compares to a rate that people would accept, is the measure of how far we've come in terms of being wealthy enough to be ready for such a system.


(5 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:September 22nd, 2006 01:49 am (UTC)
You've got a bum term somewhere in the "entry examining this idea at length"; I got a 404 NOT FOUND when I tried following the link.
[User Picture]
Date:September 22nd, 2006 02:29 am (UTC)
Argh. I copied the URL and pasted it in with the semagic button; I don't know how it got mangled. But it's fixed now.
Date:September 22nd, 2006 01:58 am (UTC)
To pay for it, the existing income and payroll taxes are scrapped, and all money that individuals bring in (other than the $500/month) is taxed at a flat rate.

An interesting thought experiment that ignores the regressive nature of other taxes like sales and property taxes. Except, also, that even the healthiest person would have a hard time living on $6,000/yr.
[User Picture]
Date:September 22nd, 2006 02:39 am (UTC)
Well, sales and property taxes are evil in their own right, but this is intended as a thought experiment, not a complete proposal.

As to living on $6000 a year -- it shouldn't be hard to not starve. Having one's own private dwelling would be pretty much impossible, but if several people pooled their resources, and if they're not trying to do it in one of the places in this country where the price of housing has completely escaped any bounds of sanity, they'd be able to work it out.

$500 is too low; I've had the idea bouncing around in my head for a long time, and didn't update the number enough. $700-$800 is probably more like it. I have in mind enough money to buy a room in an old-fashioned rooming house, not even a crummy modern apartment.
[User Picture]
Date:September 22nd, 2006 02:53 am (UTC)
As a sort of a feasibility thought experiment, imagine that we have a decent national health care system where everyone has free medical care with a service level like that's provided with a normal middle-class job's health benefits (but without the copayments)

I think my brain shuddered to a halt here...how on earth are we going to actually *fund* this, particularly in a country the size of the US? And I don't mean this as a dismissive question - I mean it as an actual pragmatic thing. Someone has to pay for the research that goes into developing new medications, new treatments, new equipment. Not to mention the cost of the treatment itself. (Because while we might argue that costs are inflated now because they're trying to make back the research costs, there will be *some* real cost to manufacturing these things.) And after spending that much money going to med school, someone has to pay off the med school loans too! How do we make this work?

I've lived in a country with a national health service. And I've been treated at university health clinics (which operate on similar principles.) Neither of them worked very well.

(And before anyone jumps down my throat about this, yes, I do speak from experience. Try having a non-life-threatening condition that just leaves you in constant pain but that doesn't show up on x-rays/CT scans/MRIs/etc. You don't end up high on the national health queue, despite the fact that if it had gone untreated I'd probably have killed myself by now. At least here I can pay people to actually believe me.)

I think that universal health care is a fantastic thing in theory. It's a great goal. But I'm not sure how we actually go about *meeting* that goal, particularly to get it at the level of quality you seem to want. So I'd love to hear some suggestions!
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