Roe vs Wade

The debate for and against the legality of abortion has been around as long as I have, i.e., for a very long time. Quoting from Justice Alito’s leaked draft of a possible court decision: “For the first 185 years after the adoption of the Constitu­tion, each State was permitted to address this issue in ac­cordance with the views of its citizens. Then, in 1973, this Court decided Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113. Even though the Constitution makes no mention of abortion, the Court held that it confers a broad right to obtain one.” “Alito draft annotated”

Should the Supreme Court rescind Roe vs Wade, it would not make abortions illegal or necessarily restrict when they would be allowed. The current standard is that an abortion is permissible before the fetus becomes viable (likely to live if delivered). What rescinding Roe vs Wade would do is return the determination of the rules on abortion to the elected representatives in each state.  I have always been “pro-choice”, but I also believe that policy in a democracy should be determined by voters and their representative. I am comfortable with either a state-by-state determination or a federal determination, but I would like to see the status quo preserved. By that I do not mean that Roe vs Wade should be upheld, as it is simply an incorrect interpretation of the Constitution as Alito correctly claims: “even abortion supporters have found it hard to defend Roe’s reasoning.”

As Alito has also explained: “The abortion right is also critically different from any other right that this Court has held to fall within the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection of ‘liberty.’ Roe’s defenders char­acterize the abortion right as similar to the rights recog­nized in past decisions involving matters such as intimate sexual relations, contraception, and marriage, but abortion is fundamentally different.”  The Fourteenth Amendment provided for the protection of equal rights for all people. What any two straight, white people can do, black and/or gay people have the right to do as well, such as marry.

The almost hysterical reaction to the possibility of overturning Roe vs Wade is unwarranted. It will not make abortions illegal. As Alito stated: “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”

Development with Dignity

Human dignity is the central focus of a fascinating new book written by Tom Palmer and Matt Warner Development with Dignity–Self-determination, Localization, and the end to Poverty.  They spotlight the treatment of every person with the dignity due all people as a critical factor in unleashing the innovation and entrepreneurship that has dramatically raised the standard of living to virtually the whole world over the last three hundred years after thousands of years of no progress. The book is rich with interesting examples.

Palmer and Warner argue that the top-down approach of most development agencies and aid projects of “teaching them how we do it in our developed countries,” often fails as a result of overlooking and/or ignoring the knowledge and ways of social organization found in the local communities aid is meant to uplift.  Such knowledge is important to understand where the problems are and what is working well in a community. Any improvements must start from there and be embraced by the people we want to help. The IMF calls this “ownership.” It must start with treating every individual with dignity.

A wonderful example of the importance of understanding and building from local knowledge and practices is provided by Jennifer Brick Martazashvili and Ilia Martazashvili in their recent book on common law property rights in the villages of Afghanistan: “Land, the State, and War –Property Institutions and Political Order in Afghanistan.”  They argue very convincingly that the common law traditions of many Afghan villages can provide satisfactory property rights until there is a central government that can be trusted and has sufficient administrative capacity to administer the registration of legal land titles.

Both books reflect an attitude toward individuals and the importance of their agency for prosperous, liberal societies. I am struck by the similarity of attitudes in the above approaches to development aid and our approaches to social welfare in the United States. Our Federal, State, and local governments provide a wide range of programs to assist the poor or temporarily unemployed.  The food stamp program, for example, epitomizes the attitude that people “on the dole” can’t be trusted to make their own decisions about how to use such assistance. I don’t want to ignore the fact that there are people we shouldn’t trust to make their own decisions (drug addicts, the emotionally unstable, etc.). But the view that government can make better decisions about how food aid should be used than the hungry who receive it is at the heart of the Palmer – Warner discussion about the importance of dignity.

Those of us who support Universal Basic Incomes (UBI) are on the side of those who believe that most people know better than government bureaucrats or even well-meaning social workers what their needs are–i.e., how best to spend their money. UBI payments are made to every person with no strings attached. Unlike current unemployment assistance and other safety net programs UBI would not diminish the financial incentive to work, though the incentives to work include more than just money. With a UBI any additional income from work is kept. The UBI is not reduced by work. See my: “Our Social Safety Net”

Pilot tests of the impact on recipients and on their incentives to work are being carried out in a number of countries and cities with generally very promising results. A two year pilot that was recently concluded in the Washington DC area is typical:

“Placing money into people’s hands without restrictions empowered them to address their needs, program administrators said, and removed the typical layers of bureaucracy and eligibility requirements that can frustrate recipients and hamper the effectiveness of aid efforts. The study’s quantitative and qualitative data showed that “participants often struck a thoughtful balance between addressing immediate survival concerns like paying rent and longer-term concerns like accumulation of debt,” analysts concluded. Recipients surveyed for the study, which was released Thursday, reported lower rates of mental health stressors and food insecurity than people with comparable incomes in the District and nationally.” “Guaranteed basic income-dc-poverty thrive”

When Universal Basic Incomes are combined with the replacement of income taxes (both individual and corporate) by a flat consumption tax, the result is a nicely progressive tax rate relative to income. See rough estimates here:  “Replacing Social Security with a Universal Basic Income” It also simplifies the process of financing the government expenditures that we want.

Trusting the choices of individuals about their own lives doesn’t mean that we (government or private institutions) shouldn’t offer information to help inform and guide their choices. But it does mean that we do not make those choices for them. We give them the dignity with which free societies can and have flourished.

Where Does Senator Josh Hawley Stand?

Upon what basis should we make our decisions to do or not do something? Upon what basis should the government take the right to make decisions for us? The quality of our individual choices depends on the values and principles that guild us. These profoundly influence the quality of our lives in our given or chosen societies.  I have discussed this issue before:  “The great divide-who decides” 

The issue of Covid-19 vaccination mandates and related issues are currently providing vivid and noisy examples of these questions. A few of my reactionary libertarian friends (in contrast with more thoughtful libertarians) insist that it is their right to decide whether to get vaccinated or not. Perhaps, but it is not their right to knowingly infect others (the freedom to swing my fist ends at your face). Specifically, the unvaccinated do not have the right to be where they are not wanted or permitted by private establishments. Businesses (restaurants, theaters, sports events, etc.) should have the right to determine who they serve (subject to the sometimes problematic limitations imposed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act Virtually all such businesses wisely go out of their way to reassure potential customers that they are save places to visit. This generally takes the form of mandating that their employees and customers are vaccinated for Covid. In my opinion the government, in addition to collecting and disseminating the best possible information on Covid risks and how to minimize them, should protect the freedom of businesses to make Covid policies they consider appropriate to their own business and should mandate that all of the government’s own employees be vaccinated. Only specific health issues should qualify for potential exemption. Religious and other beliefs should not.

Sports, and the Beijing Winter Olympics in particular, also raise the issue of who decides to participate in the face of serious Chinese human rights violations. I generally think that sporting competitions should not be influenced by politics. So, should athletes participate in the upcoming winter Olympics and who should decide?

In his December 9 column in the Washington Post Josh Rogin makes a strong case for each of us to speak out against violations of our principles: “Enes Kanter Freedom takes bold stance on China” “’We must always take sides,’ Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. ‘Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.’”

President Biden recently declared a diplomatic boycott of the China games, meaning that the U.S. government will have no representatives there, though the American Olympic teams and individual athletes are free to make their own decisions. The Economist reported that “France will not join the partial boycott that America, Australia, Britain and Canada are calling against the Beijing Winter Olympics in protest at China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority and of Peng Shuai, a tennis star. President Emmanuel Macron complained that the Anglophone countries’ merely withholding diplomatic representation—while their athletes compete—is not an effective way to alter China’s objectionable policies.” “The Economist Morning Brief”

“Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., [also] ridiculed the Biden move, echoing Hagerty’s claim that the diplomatic boycott did not go far enough.  ‘A diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics is a joke,’ Hawley told the Daily Caller Monday. ‘China doesn’t care if Biden and his team show up. They want our athletes.’”  In short, Hawley wants a presidential mandate forbidding participation of American athletes in the Beijing Winter games. “Republicans blast Biden apos diplomatic”

On the other hand, Sen. Hawley opposes President Biden’s proposed mandate that every eligible person must receive an approved Covid-19 vaccination.  “Senator Hawley-Biden vaccine mandate shows contempt for religious liberty”  In this area the good Senator puts “choice” over “life.”  With regard to abortion Senator Hawley sides with “life” over “choice.”

“U.S. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) issued a statement in support of Missourians who traveled to Washington, D.C., today to participate in the 46th Annual March for Life. The group of nearly 3,000 Missourians represented all ages, from high schoolers to retirees and came from all over the state including Cape Girardeau, Jefferson City, Kansas City, Sedalia and St. Louis.

“’It’s incredible to see people of all ages and backgrounds, from Missouri and across the country, who have made the trek to our nation’s capital to speak their hearts, their minds, their faith – to tell their elected leaders that this nation was founded on the dignity of every person and that every life is worth fighting for,’ said Senator Hawley. ‘I am proud to stand for the right to life. Always.’”

“Senator Hawley commends missourians participating in march for life”

Where is Senator Hawley coming from and where is he going?  Regarding health and vaccination against Covid-19, Hawley is “pro choice” rather than “pro life.” Regarding the abortion of non-viable fetuses, Hawley is pro (potential) life rather than pro choice.  What are the principles guiding when he is one and when he is the other (beyond political expediency)? When should government mandate our choices and when not?

Our Right to be Free

Our country was founded and has prospered on the proposition “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We jealously guard our individual liberty. We are free to decide what we want to do and how we want to do it. This liberty is subject to two major conditions: we must live with the consequences of our choices and actions, and our actions cannot interfere with the same exercise of freedom by others. We never fully live up to these high principles, but they do define the goals we continue to and should continue to aim for.

When our actions or circumstance fail to sustain us, we do step in to help those in distress, whether from family obligations or friendships or a government administered social safety net. We continue to debate and refine its features.

Determining the boundary between those actions I am free to choose, and those that unacceptably affect others is not always easy. Walking in public naked is not acceptable in most societies (except at designated nude beaches). While this would not infringe on the freedom of others to behave as they want, it would “force” them to see something they do not want to see.

I chose this example because it does not fall neatly into something purely private that I have a right to do (walking around my home naked) or something clearly and obviously damaging to others that I do not have a right to do (driving my car through my neighbor’s garden).  In the realm of social norms, I can walk in public dressed in many ways depending on the society I am in.  A man might freely walk around in a dress (if he chooses the neighborhood carefully) without getting knocked down in some societies but not in others. Such social norms are important in defining and guiding acceptable public behavior and they vary across societies and over time. Such norms are continuously debated.

But clearly my freedom to swing my fist ends where your face begins. If you are infected with a contagious disease, you do not have the freedom to walk around potentially infecting others even in the most libertarian of societies (e.g., lower Manhattan). I assume that anyone sick with Covid-19 knows that she must isolate/quarantine herself.

But what about someone who doesn’t feel sick but hasn’t been vaccinated?

Any establishment has the right to require that only vaccinated people work or shop there and/or wear face masks. And I certainly have the right to attend only those performances or eat in those restaurants that impose these requirements. These are implications of freedom.

Surely everyone understands and accepts these propositions.  So why is there such controversy over wearing masks and getting vaccinated? I don’t know the answer to this question but will suggest a few factors that I think are important. That such health issues have become so politicized is almost more distressing than the fact that in the United States 728,000 people have died from Covid-19 by October 10, 2021.

One reason is that some people are pushing back on being told what to do by the government. Such behavior is common in freedom loving children but rather unseemly in adults. Another is that vaccines were developed with miraculous speed and their effectiveness and potential side effects are not yet fully known. None the less the evidence is overwhelming that being vaccinated significantly increases your prospects of living and surviving the infection compared to those who are unvaccinated. Another is that during the Trump administration medical policy and advice became quite politicized. Many of us, often with good reason, stopped trusting the messages from the CDC and FDA. And to this day government messaging remains poor. Rather than offering advice based on the most recent evidence (which can change over time) and the reasons for those recommendations, government pronouncements are often confusing and sometimes sound like demands. Many of us have lost trust in the government’s pronouncements. Unfortunately, some people have put their trust in unreliable sources of information and even, in some cases, in deliberately malicious sources (and we can’t always blame Russia). 

Where our choices and actions affect only ourselves, we should be free to do as we like and benefit (or suffer) from the outcome. Where our actions affect others, more or less directly, social norms and government rules should limit our choices. In societies where its citizens live by the golden rule and respect these norms, beneficial behavior is followed voluntarily — enforcement is not a serious problem.  We must determine the sources of information that we trust carefully and based on such information we must treat our neighbors with the respect we expect from them.

Protecting our freedom is critical but it is not enough. We must also exercise it virtuously. The “fusion” of freedom and virtue has been (most of the time) the basis of American success. We seem at risk of losing both. Get vaccinated now for everyone’s benefit. Please.

Vaccine Passports

Discussions of the pros and cons of mandated lock downs to stop (or slow) the spread of Covid-19 often miss the most important point. The key factor in restraining the spread of a contagious disease (beyond vaccines, basic public health measures, etc.) is the behavior of each one of us. Given our respective risk preferences the question is whether we adjust our behavior sensibly to protect ourselves and others from infection? Our behavior may be responding to government mandates to close restaurants, theaters, and factories or it may be responding to information provided by public health experts on the nature of the risks and measures to mitigate them. In the latter case our experience and that of our neighbors will depend importantly on the quality of the information provided and our trust in its efficacy. Our individual choices allow responses that are more suited to the individual situation of each actor.  “The unnecessary fight over covid-19”

In short, if governments were to say, “do whatever you want, but these are the risks as we understand them,” people would not necessarily rush to the concert hall, or baseball game, or hop on a plane. “Sports fans live attendance poll”  Offices, factories, restaurants and entertainment venues must convince their workers and customers that they have taken reasonable steps to be safe from Covid-19 (or other risks). Thus, comparing the results (infections and economic output) of lock down with no (or mild) lock down countries is not the right test.

We need to focus attention on the quality of the information being provided to the public, the public’s trust of such information, and the efficacy of the measures being taken by those offering reasons to gather in public places to enhance its safety. Those who have had Covid-19 or who have been vaccinated for it face minimum risk of catching it (again) or of spreading it and can pretty safely attend public events. Thus, a trustworthy way of establishing that fact would be very useful. I carry my vaccine certificate wherever I go but they are relatively easy to counterfeit if it became useful to do so. Thus, the reason behind the various projects to develop so called vaccine passports (better named vaccine certificates) is obvious.

The technical design, including privacy protections, raise more issues than you might at first imagine, including establishing interoperability standards and access to public records. However, the position taken by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis defies understanding by those of us who place our individual freedom in first place. He stated that: “We are not supporting doing any vaccine passports in the state of Florida…. It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society.”  “Biden vaccine passports-DeSantis”  This is incredibly wrong. Restaurants now serving indoors already test our temperature before allowing us to enter. I visited my credit union in the IMF building in downtown Washington, DC today and they took my temperature as well. If gatherings are not convincingly safe, sensible people won’t attend. Countries requiring arriving passengers from other countries with a high incidence of Covid-19 infections to quarantine for two weeks would presumably wave that requirement for passengers with a credible vaccine certificate.

It is hard to imagine that the public accommodation clause of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would require a restaurant to admit and serve a customer with a contagious disease. But there are privacy and other technical concerns with implementing a reliable certificate of a covid vaccine. “The next front in the pandemic culture wars vaccine passports” The benefits to the economy and our freedoms are significant enough to make the effort to overcome them.

Should you get vaccinated for Covid-19?

“A CBS/YouGov poll released this weekend found 33 percent of GOP voters say they will not get the vaccine when it’s available to them. Another 20 percent say they aren’t sure.” “The-daily-202”  After being thoroughly satisfied that Moderna was safe and effective, I have received both of my jabs. But I sympathize with those who are skeptical and/or distrusting of the information they have been fed over the last year. The messaging from the Trump administration was inconsistent and the CDC has now removed some earlier postings that had been more influenced by politics than by science (which, by the way, is far from having all of the answers yet).

In addition to poor messaging from the government, some badly misguided, if not deliberately evil, groups have spread false information.  So, I find it very encouraging that many of those refusing to get the vaccine say that they “want to be educated not indoctrinated.  The responses of focus group participants suggest they can be persuaded — but perhaps not by politicians, including the former president…. Be honest that scientists don’t have all the answers. Tout the number of people who got the vaccines in trials. And don’t show pro-vaccine ads with politicians — not even ones with Donald Trump.  That’s what a focus group of vaccine-hesitant Trump voters insisted to politicians and pollsters this weekend….

 “’These people represent 30 million Americans. And without these people, you’re not getting herd immunity,’ said Frank Luntz, the longtime GOPpollster who convened Saturday’s focus group over Zoom.” Unfortunately Mr. Luntz is speaking nonsense as well. We would still get herd immunity even without a vaccine as people would acquire immunity as a result of being infected. The process would be slower with more deaths, but we would get there. I am sure that Mr. Luntz meant well.

Participants in these focus groups “all believed the coronavirus threat was real, with many having contracted it themselves or aware of critically ill friends and family, and they didn’t want to be condemned as “anti-vaxxers” who opposed all vaccines. Instead, they blamed their hesitation on factors like the unknown long-term effects of new vaccines, even though scientists have stressed their confidence in the products. They also accused politicians and government scientists of repeatedly misleading them this past year….

“For instance, [House Minority Leader Kevin] McCarthy said he understood the Trump voters’ hesitation because pharmaceutical companies waited until after Trump lost the election to announce their promising vaccine results — a comment that sparked participants to share their own resentments.

‘It was political stunts like that that leave doubt in our minds,’ said a man identified as David from Texas.”

In another session “a man called Chad from Minnesota,… praised [former head of the CDC Dr.] Frieden for acknowledging that the long-term risks of the vaccines aren’t yet known. “He’s just honest with us and telling us, nothing is 100 percent here, people.”

The lessons are clear. The best results are obtained by treating the public like adults. The government needs to honestly present the best information available, acknowledging what is known and what is uncertain.

“’I’ve been thinking the messaging was going to be very different for communities of color, for Democrats, for Republicans,’ said Natalie Davis, co-founder of United States of Care, a public health advocacy group working on vaccine outreach with organizations like the de Beaumont Foundation and Kaiser Family Foundation. ‘But it feels like it comes down to the basics that are shared across populations. People want full, accurate information so they can decide if this is the right thing for them and their loved ones….’

“‘The vaccines were approved quickly in part because red tape was cut, not corners,’ [Dr. Frieden said. ‘And almost all the doctors who are offered the vaccine get it.’”   “Vaccine hesitant republicans focus group”

The unnecessary fight over Covid-19

We American’s expect to be able to make our own choices about what risks we are willing to take. The limits on our behavior generally concern when it threatens to harm others. When state after state issued stay at home orders and mandated the closing of many businesses (restaurants and theaters, etc.) a year ago they violated this principle. Many people rebelled at this intrusion into their prerogatives, but sadly by often making foolish decisions of their own. Of course, those who contract a contagious disease, such as Covid-19, should be legally quarantined.  Otherwise, businesses and individuals should make their own decisions about how to respond to this pandemic on the basis of the best possible information about its risks and how to mitigate them. A role in which the government failed miserably.

As with economic decisions more generally, countries that give maximum scope to individuals about what to produce and/or buy have been far more prosperous than those in which more decisions are made centrally and imposed from the top (socialism). Among other things the CARES Act suspended debt payments (and associated defaults, bankruptcies, and evictions) for understandable reasons https://wcoats.blog/2020/04/11/econ-202-cares-act-who-pays-for-it/. However, it was part and parcel of centralized mandatory decision making and inferior to individual case by case decisions by lenders and borrowers (debt restructuring) and landlords and tenants (rent forgiveness or holiday or eviction). In normal times when a debtor is unable to service its debt, for purely profit maximizing reasons lenders evaluated case by case whether to allow temporary arrears (debt restructuring) or to invoke the default provisions of the loan (bankruptcy).

Restaurants that felt they could safely open with social distancing and other safety measures that would convince their customers to return should be allowed to do so. They should be free to decide whether requiring face masks when entering and walking about the restaurant would attract more customers than not doing so. Customers who were not comfortable in a restaurant that did not take these safety measure would not patronize them. The relevant government should decide whether to require them on public transportation, etc.  If you come to my house, be sure that you are wearing one.

The culture war we now witness over face masks and other aspects of appropriate public behavior with regard to Covid-19 was so unnecessary. The American government behaved like a parent dealing with children and many Americans responded by behaving like children. They didn’t choose not to wear face masks because they were convinced by medical data that they are not effective (most data shows that they are very effective). Rather they chose not to wear them because the government told them they must. Childish indeed. Almost a year ago I wrote that the government’s most effective role was to provide the best information available (and more was coming available every week) about the nature and risks of Covid-19 and how best to avoid or mitigate those risks. If restaurants felt that they could safely remain open, they would need to convince potential customers that they had taken measures to protect them from exposure to the virus. This was not the approach taken by the government and public trust in the statements of the government in recent years has been, to say the least, low.

I expressed these views almost exactly a year ago (March 31, 2020). I repeat that blog here:

https://wcoats.blog/2020/03/31/beating-covid-19-compulsion-or-persuasion-and-guidance/

Access to COVID-19 vaccines

In less than one year from learning of this virus, we now have two approved safe and effective covid-19 vaccines with at least one more on the way. Millions of doses have already been produced. This is a near miracle. Thank you pharmaceutical industry and the governments (and their tax payers) that are paying for it.

Getting the vaccine into our bodies is quite another thing. This has several elements. The first is distributing the vaccines to each state/county and site of vaccinations. The second (or first and a half) is staffing these sites with professions able to administer the shots with the necessary equipment (refrigeration, syringes and needles, etc.). The third is determining who can receive the shot this week and getting them to the right place. The need for these three elements has been known for as long as the need for a vaccine has been known. And officials have known the likely vaccines for at least half a year. But planning for delivering the vaccine to your arm (or the lack of it) has been totally botched.

Focusing on the United States, the federal government promised to vaccinate 20 million people by the end of the year (last week). “Of the more than 12 million doses of vaccines from Moderna Inc. and Pfizer Inc. with BioNTech SE that have been shipped, only 2.8 million have been administered, according to federal figures….  The federal government is sending vaccines to states based on their populations, and it has provided guidelines, but no rules, about how they should be distributed…. On Friday [Jan 1, 2021], Sen. Mitt Romney (R., Utah) criticized the vaccine rollout, saying in a statement that the lack of a comprehensive federal plan to be shared with states “is as incomprehensible as it is inexcusable.”  WSJ: Covid-19-vaccines-slow-rollout-could-portend-more-problems”

Priority

Beyond the above fiasco, it is necessary to determine the priority for receiving the shots and communicating that information to you and me.  As we have already seen it will take a while–many months–to vaccinate everyone even without the above mess. So, who should get them the first month and the second month etc.? I discussed this issue last May. https://wcoats.blog/2020/05/18/the-vaccine-who-gets-it-first/

One criterion for establishing inoculation priorities is to allocate the vaccines so as to maximize the lives saved. I suggest that a better criterion is to maximize the life saved. The difference between the number of lives saved and the amount of life saved can be explained with a simple example. If there is only one dose and it is given to an 85 year old woman otherwise in good health, she might live another healthy year. If given to a 40 year old nurse, he might live another 46 healthy years. In both cases only one life has been saved but in the second case much more life has been saved (46 years of life rather than only one). But this potentially understates the case for giving the jab (as the British call it) to the nurse. One nurse that has been immunized against covid-19 can safely treat more patients that have covid-19 thus saving even more lives and more life. An argument in the other direction of inoculating the elderly first is to flatten the curve (i.e., reduce the inflow of covid-19 patients into overflowing hospitals).

In my view there is a strong case for maximizing the life saved rather than the number of lives saved. We older people should not crowed out younger people who as a result of the vaccination might enjoy much longer lives, something we have already enjoyed. The case, in my view, is overwhelming for critical workers (healthcare workers, grocery store workers, delivery people, etc.) of all ages to receive priority. “Many states are following CDC guidelines to start with front-line medical workers and people in long-term care facilities, but not all. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Dec. 23 extended eligibility to people aged 65 and older.  Because each county and hospital in the state implemented its own approach, many people didn’t know whether to call, log on or show up in person to secure a spot.” [Same WSJ article] 

 A single dose of Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines “appears to provide strong protection against the coronavirus…. With supplies of the vaccines limited — and hundreds of millions of people waiting for inoculation — this leaves epidemiologists grappling with a complicated question. Should the nation vaccinate fewer people with the best protection possible, or provide twice the number of people with a single shot, covering more of the population but with slightly weaker protection?”  “Coronavirus-vaccine-single-dose-debate”

But if the government can get itself organized (I know that that asks a lot) the existing and rapidly expanding supply of vaccines can be administered in a relatively modest number of months after which the priority issue vanishes.

Information

Whatever your priority turns out to be, how do you know where and when to show up? Do you need a prescription or approval and if so where do you get it? My insurance company is sending regular updates on what I should do. My Maryland county (Montgomery) website has information on the priority phase they are in (phase 1 at the moment) and that is about all (probably because every dispensary–hospitals, doctor’s offices, CVS–sets its own rules). I plan to contact my Primary Care Physician (PCP) for instructions next month when the situation might be a bit clearer.  What should people without medical insurance or a PCP do?  I have visited Kenya many times with the IMF and suspect that they are doing a better job with this than we are. How and why is this such a mess?

Replacing Social Security with a Universal Basic Income

The idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) in place of existing entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, etc.) that is financed by a flat rate income or consumption tax calls for a deeper discussion of its financing. “Our-social-safety-net”

For purposes of illustration, lets assume a UBI of 18,000 dollars per year for adults and half that for children (under 20 years old). This is somewhat above the current average Social Security benefit for someone retiring at age 65.  The current American population of 330 million consists of about 82 million children and 248 million adults. Thus, the total cost of such a UBI would be about 5.2 trillion dollars. This would exceed total expenditures in 2019 of 4.4 trillion dollars, of which 2.7 was for the social safety net (entitlements–social security and welfare). Total Federal tax revenue in 2019 was 3.5 trillion dollars of which 36% or 1.26 trillion dollars was from payroll taxes (social security and Medicaid and Medicare). This left a staggering deficit in 2019 of almost one trillion dollars that had to be borrowed from China and others when our economy was at full employment and should have been in surplus. And now look at our shocking deficit in this pandemic year! But that is another story.

The goal of this note is to illustrate the significant progressivity that would exist with a flat rate consumption tax in place of the corporate and personal income taxes and the payroll tax when replacing existing safety net expenditures with a UBI.

The original rational for the regressive payroll tax to pay for social security pensions was that social security was a traditional retirement program funded from the savings of each pensioner. The assumption was that the pension it paid reflected the money that each worker paid into the so called but misnamed social security trust fund. In short it was characterized as what we call a defined contribution system (you get what you saved) when it was in fact structured as a defined benefit system (you get a defined amount no matter what you actually paid in). In fact, as Americans lived longer and longer, thus enjoying more and more retirement years, the system collapsed into a basically pay as you go system (today’s workers were paying for today’s retirees’ pensions). The trust fund has very little savings in it. So instead of the payroll tax funding the worker’s future pension it became a regressive tax funding current retiree pensions. The payroll tax should be abolished. “Saving Social Security”  

A flat tax (whether on income or consumption) has many economic virtues, with simplicity at the top of the list.  But a flat rate rubs some people the wrong way who think that the wealthier should pay more tax than implied by a flat rate. My sense of fairness calls for someone with twice the income (if we are focusing on an income tax) to pay twice the tax. That is exactly what a flat rate tax (the same tax rate for everyone whatever their income level is) provides.  Whether we go for an income tax or a consumption tax we should forget about the corporate income tax. It is more trouble than it is worth in a world in which many if not most companies operate globally (i.e. in many different tax jurisdictions). It only contributed 7% of total Federal tax revenue in 2019 and unfairly taxes the company incomes of company owners twice. “Principles of Tax Reform

A flat personal consumption tax that would raise the same revenue as raised by all Federal taxes in the U.S. in 2019 (3.5 trillion dollars) would require a 24% rate. But that revenue did not cover all of the government’s expenditure as noted above. In addition, replacing existing safety net expenditures of 2.7 trillion dollars with a UBI of 18,000 dollars per adult and 9,000 dollars per child (5.2 trillion dollars) would result in total Federal government expenditures in 2019 of 6.9 trillion dollars or 2.5 trillion dollars higher (5.2 – 2.7). A flat consumption tax rate of 47% would be needed to raise 6.9 trillion dollars. This seems very high for two important reasons. First it assumes a balanced budget for the actual level of defense and other non-entitlement expenditures in 2019, i.e. it raises almost one trillion dollars more than the government actually collect in 2019.  Secondly it is financing the additional 2.5 trillion dollars for the UBI from which the higher tax would be paid, i.e. the net tax would be lower.

Though the marginal tax rate would be flat (the same for everyone), the resulting tax burden would actually be quite progressive. To provide a rough idea of the net progressivity of the UBI with a 47% consumption tax, assume that all income is consumed (this would overstate consumption some for higher income families). The poorest families, those who have no income other than the UBI, and assuming a family of two adults and two children, would pay no net tax and receive a net income subsidy of $28,620 or $2,385 per month. For the median family in 2019 (50% income level) the average income was $63,030. But including their UBI their total tax payments would be $55,004 or an excess of $1,004 over their UBI for a tax rate on their (pre UBI) income of 1.6%. For the family at the 80% income level, the average income was $130,000 and their total tax payments would be $86,480 or an excess over their UBI of $32,480 for a tax rate on their earned income of 25%.  This is a significantly progressive outcome while preserving the flat marginal rate.

Individual states may well choose to provide assistance for individual specific purposes, as they do now, for example, for education at various levels. But at the Federal level every effort should be made to prevent such add-ons to our social safety net. If as we become richer as a whole, we choose to be more generous, the amount of the UBI can be raised (or lowered) but only for everyone equally. This would prevent individual interest groups from tacking on special assistance for themselves. The ability of such special interests to gain special favor is a major reason for the slippery slope of the creeping welfare state we now enjoy.

It is important that policies, whatever their good intentions might be, also provide good incentives for outcomes that are desirable for society as a whole. A danger with progressive marginal tax rates, is that the majority of taxpayers have an incentive to raise the rate on those with incomes greater than their own. Or at best there is no incentive for them to resist such a temptation. Soaking the rich is not only an unfair treatment of those who have prospered inventing and delivery goods and services we liked enough to buy, but it will drive them away to tax jurisdictions that better respect their property rights. One of the many virtues of a UBI financed with a flat rate consumption (or income) tax is that the only way to increase the average tax rate on the wealthy is to increase the UBI for everyone.

A UBI would fulfill our desire to help those in real need but would return the responsibility of individual decisions of how that assistance is to be used to the individuals involved. It would simplify and depoliticize the determination of who gets help and how much and would remove the burden of determining our proper tax obligation for most of us. It would thus greatly simplify the administration of such a combined program. It would better align the political incentives for the level of assistance with the preferences of society as a whole. While most people work for more than the income it generates–the self-esteem of being a useful member of society is also important–a UBI would remove the economic disincentive of many current welfare programs of working resulting from the loss of benefits when income reaches a modest level.

Our Social Safety Net

Virtually every country provides assistance to their poorest citizens–to those who fall for one reason or another from normal employment. Approaches to fulfill this objective differ widely. The Federal safety net spending in in the United States in 2019 was 2,600 billion dollars. Total government (Federal, State, and local) entitlement spending was 2,900 billion dollars. Of this, about one third was for Social Security and one third for Medicare and Medicaid.

“The federal government funds 126 separate programs targeted towards low‐​income people, 72 of which provide either cash or in‐​kind benefits to individuals. (The rest fund community‐​wide programs for low‐​income neighborhoods, with no direct benefits to individuals.) State and local governments operate more welfare programs.”[1] This year, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Federal Government has added about $3 trillion dollars ($3,000,000,000,000) for temporary one-time assistance for the impact of the forced interruption of production, and is likely to add more.

The goal of these programs is, or should be, to adequately support those needing it without creating disincentives to work and with minimal abuse (corruption). The CARES Act and other pandemic assistance programs were quickly created in an emergency. It is thus understandable that mistakes were made. As time goes on charges of corruption (politically motivated expenditures) are multiplying. The administrative challenges of suddenly making millions of individual payments quickly and correctly were and are huge.

There is a dramatically better way to do this. We might characterize our existing approach of government directed assistance (e.g. food stamps) as the Socialist Model. It is top down and dictates how the assistance is to be used. Replacing all of these programs with a Universal Basic Income (UBI) leaves the decisions on how its recipients use it with each individual. This might be characterized as the Individualist Model. It has many advantages over our existing approach.

A UBI would eliminate all government discretion over who receives assistance and how much they receive.  Every adult citizen would receive that same amount monthly (and every legal child would receive the same smaller amount). The government could not favor one group over another on any bases other than age. This removes political considerations from defining and administering the payments. Every birth and death in the country is recorded in a county hall of records and every legal immigration is recorded with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). Thus, the records upon which payments would be based already exist. Using them would remove my need every year to submit a certified document to my pension plan stating that I am still alive. No special measures or supplements would have been needed to address the personal income shocks of covid-19.

One carveout would be required for medical insurance. Every person or family should be required to use part of its monthly UBI to buy a health insurance policy that at a minimum includes catastrophic care coverage. At the launch of UBI and this insurance mandate, insurers would not be allowed to refuse coverage to people with preexisting conditions and the government would cover the actuarial estimate of the extra cost of such conditions.

As the UBI would replace Social Security pensions, another modification would be for the unlikely case that the UBI would be less than ones current Social Security pension (which in 2017 was $13,824 for someone who retired at age 65). So, for such a person who has already retired or is, say, within five years of retirement, their UBI should not be less than their existing Social Security pension. But a UBI of $1,500 per month ($18,000 per annum) for everyone seems reasonable, which would make this case mute.

Those with a welfare state mentality argue that people can’t be trusted to spend such income wisely (from their perspective). I reject such thinking. There are among us, of course, those individuals with addictions and mental illnesses who are indeed not capable of making their own decisions and thus caring for themselves. Our laws and practices already provide for such special cases and would continue to supersede the rights of such individuals to make their own decisions about the uses of their UBIs.

But can we afford it? Today’s American population is about 330 million, of which about 80 million are under the age of 20. To get a rough sense of what is possible, if we replaced today’s safety net expenditures of 2.9 trillion with a UBI to the 33% poorest (110 million people, of whom 25% or 26 million are under 20 years old) in the U.S. in 2019 each person could received about $26,000 per year or about $2,200 per month. If children (those under 20) are paid half what is paid to adults, existing safety net expenditures could finance about $15,000 per child per year and $30,000 per adult if a UBI is given to the lowest third of the population in terms of income. For a family of four this would be an annual income of $90,000, which is above the median household income of about $64,000 in 2019, and is clearly excessive.

But a UBI must be universal. It must be paid to everyone for several simple reasons. Most importantly, it would eliminate the disincentive to work in the existing programs, which end if a person’s income rises above a specified level. With a UBI, every additional dollar of income joins an irreducible UBI. Every additional dollar earned make the recipient that much better off (the UBI amount plus the earned income). This is a very important feature. In addition, it would remove any political question over the level of income at which it should be withdrawn. It would be paid to everyone regardless of their income.

But paying the UBI to everyone, not just the lowest one third, would triple its cost. Can we afford it? Clearly those who pay taxes will have to pay more to cover this additional cost. But as the additional cost is to cover payments to these taxpayers, they would not pay more on net (depending on the nature and structure of our tax systems).  For reasons of equity and tax efficiency I have long advocated a flat tax, meaning the same marginal tax rate for everyone paying taxes. “My-political-platform-for-the-nation-2017” I would go even further and replace income taxation (both corporate and personal) with a flat rate, comprehensive consumption tax.  When a flat rate tax, whether income or consumption, is combined with a UBI, the net result is mildly progressive. Low income people pay no tax on net and in fact receive net income via the UBI (what Milton Friedman called a negative income tax). Middle income families might break even (receive a UBI sufficient to pay for their extra taxes) and for higher income families their extra taxes would be greater than their UBI, hence a progressive average tax rate system even with flat marginal rates.

A UBI with a flat rate consumption tax would enormously simplify our tax and welfare system while improving the financial incentives to work and returning more control over our lives to individuals from the state. Covid-19 dramatically demonstrates that the time has come to replace existing welfare systems with a Universal Basic Income (UBI).


[1] Michael Tanner, “When Welfare Pays Better than Work” CATO Institute, August 19, 2013.