I used to be somewhat skeptical we could afford, as either a province or a nation, to experiment with what a basic income would actually do. Mostly because I don’t like borrowing, and am fully aware that the more we borrow, the more we’ll be paying back through taxes–at least, if the government is borrowing responsibly. If the current global situation has done anything positive, if one wants to call it positive, it’s served to disabuse me of that idea. Mostly because we’ve spent more as a country in the last month or so than it was believed a federal basic income system would cost per year over 5 years. I’m an evidence guy. I’ve always said that. And as much as math and I are rarely on speaking terms, math is still evidence. And that evidence has me reevaluating how I understand social spending.
If the federal government wanted to implement a basic income system a la Ontario’s cancelled pilot (*), it would cost Canada as a whole about $80 billion a year, to keep it simple. Less if, as a part of that system the government cancelled other social safety net programs (not likely), or teamed up with the provinces (slightly less likely) to implement it. By contrast, it’s been a month and the federal government’s already earmarked $107 billion to keep people as close as possible to financially afloat while we try and flatten the curve. Again, math and I are rarely on speaking terms. But $107 billion in a month or so–with presumedly more coming besides–is a lot bigger than $80 billion over the course of a year. The government didn’t bat an eye at doing this, therefore in theory, it shouldn’t be batting an eye at looking at basic income when we get through the other side.
I’d like to say I’m all for it, but my skepticism involves a lot more than financial concerns–which is why the Ontario experiment the report above was based on should have been allowed to continue (thanks, Doug). Everyone knows someone on welfare or disability who easily couldn’t be, but would rather be there than actually do something. If you yourself are on welfare, you’re more likely to know someone who fits that description. In my case, I’m related to it by a former marriage (not mine). That doesn’t mean they’re the majority, or even a significant minority. But that does mean they exist. Say that number right now is 10%. Assuming a basic income system went live, it would apply to a lot of the same people. Would that number still be 10%? Would it drop? Would it increase? And in answering that question, we’d answer another–how many of these people are that way because they can’t afford not to be, versus this is an honest to goodness choice they’ve made? I’d have liked to see actual data to support one way or the other. There are studies that suggest it might have actually worked out that way if it was allowed to play out, and I’m liking what I see here. Which is why I’d also be perfectly okay with this experiment running federally–unless we’re running it right now, at which point screw it, we’re good.
Ontario’s experiment cost $150 million. If we skipped the experiment and just rolled it out federally, it would cost $80 billion. Clearly, we can afford it. And if we’d stop playing with the tax code to win elections, we might actually have less difficulty affording it than even the PBO report tries to point out. However we do it, if we do it, I don’t buy any longer the excuse that we can’t afford it. We’ve already spent this year’s basic income money and nearly half of next. If we don’t consider actually letting a basic income experiment play out so we have actual honest to goodness results to rely on, the reasons will be just about entirely political at this point. I know what an NDP voter will tell me re: a basic income. I know what a Liberal voter might tell me re: a basic income–depending on whether their second choice is Conservative or NDP. I know what a Conservative voter will tell me re: a basic income. When the dust settles, and we can all stop our heads from collectively spinning, it’s time to put up or shut up. If I know anything at all after all this, “we can’t afford it” no longer works. New arguments, please.
(*): If you voted for Ford based on his promise to not touch the basic income pilot, you no longer get to mock Trudeau voters for “this will be the last election under First Past the Post”. And if you voted for both of them, please stop. Just stop. You’re not helping.