The social wage

As I’ve mentioned before, I think the best way to tackle inequality and poverty is directly through cash programs. I am not opposed to programs that try to manipulate market wages in some way, unions and minimum wages for instance. But strategies focused on market wages are very messy and almost certainly inadequate to the task.

Identifying the need for a non-market-focused approach to this solution does not necessarily explain what these solutions will look like in practice. Unless you spend a lot of time on these issues, it may not be exactly clear what a comprehensive transfer system might look like. Is it just another government program built on top of the others, or is it something different altogether? Here I hope to flesh this out a bit.

The easiest and cleanest way to go about fine-tuning the distribution is to create a social wage that will exist alongside the market wage. So in any given pay period, an individual will receive a market paycheck (if they are working) and a social paycheck. With the rise of direct deposit, you could imagine this very concretely: every Friday you would have cash transferred into your account from your job and cash transferred into your account from the Social Wage Administration.

The amount of money you will receive from the social wage will be determined by various factors. There will be a base social wage that everyone gets no matter what (this is the basic income). From there, the social wage will increase based upon conditional factors. For instance, those with dependent children will get a boost to their social wage. Those with disabilities will get a boost to their social wage. Those who are past the retirement age will get a boost to their social wage. And so on. What conditions qualify for social wage boosts and how much those boosts are will be a matter for social deliberation. The basic gist should be clear though.

The social wage would not be merely another program. If it were successfully implemented, it could also replace the massive complex of programs we use to achieve each of these discreet goals. It could replace SNAP, WIC, TANF, the Child Tax Credit, and so on. It would also be a universal mechanism to pay out benefits for basically any program. If you find yourself needing unemployment benefits, the agency that handles that could just pay them out via the social wage deposit. Upon retirement, Social Security would just involve bumping up the social wage. This would streamline programs and reduce redundancies.

Beyond that, creating a social wage system would also strike out against the ideologies that so fetishize market wages in the status quo. Everyone would receive a social wage, not just those who meet certain means-testing rules. With a universal constituency, it would hopefully become as entrenched as Social Security is now, making it almost impossible to do away with. The social wage could also be designed better than what we have now, and therefore it could avoid cut-off points that create really perverse incentives for those right on the cusp of losing benefits.

Finally, solving our distributive problems should clear up some of the intractable debates we have about public goods and other sorts of public enterprises. Right now, most of these debates get bogged down in questions of distribution. That is, people argue that given how unequal our social distribution is, certain public programs (like subsidizing public transit) should be pursued because they help the poor more than the rich. By taking distributive injustice off the table by fixing it up front, this argument goes away, and we get to have a much better discussion about public programs than the one we currently are forced to deal with. That would make me happier, if nobody else.