Keith Ellison: Not a socialist, but he likes universal basic income

The true, hard-core socialists in the Democratic Party have had one idea simmering on the back burner for quite a while now. It deals with the idea of universal basic income (UBI). This social safety net feature would guarantee that every citizen received some basic level of cash income each year whether they worked or not. This is often touted as a response to automation, as low-income positions are eliminated in favor of robots, apps or whatever the next bit of technical wizardry happens to be. A few European nations have dabbled in such policies, but only in limited circumstances.

You don’t hear too many actual elected officials talking about it, though. It’s really not very popular in a capitalist society. But UBI advocates may have a new champion for their cause. Democratic Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison (who is absolutely not a socialist and will tell anyone who asks) has come out and declared UBI to be an idea with “a lot of merit.”

Rep. Keith Ellison (D., Minn.), deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, recently praised the concept of a universal basic income, saying it “has a lot of merit.”

Ellison made the comment at a forum in Minneapolis, where he discussed the issue of people losing their jobs due to technological advancements.

“I personally do think that universal basic income is a [sic] idea that has a lot merit,” Ellison said. “I don’t think that universal basic income means that people sit around; I think it means do other things that are necessary.”

Here’s the video of Ellison delivering his remarks.

Notice that even Ellison is careful to couch his words a bit, stressing that he’s not talking about people getting money to “sit around.” He’s referencing make-work projects from the great depression when the government found money to pay people for tasks ranging from planting flowers to interviewing or photographing people and saving those documents in the national archives. Of course, those were desperate times when the unemployment rate included nearly everyone at one point. Currently, there are employers offering wages above the government minimum along with bonuses and other compensation options because they can’t find enough workers to fill all the jobs. That’s not exactly the sort of environment where you begin thinking about things like a universal basic income.

He’s right to be cautious. The concept of UBI is polling a bit better across the country than it used to, with nearly half saying that could support some sort of measure along these lines. But the support is rather soft and conditional. Those responses are not talking about a UBI for anyone and everyone, but rather a specific pool of money for workers who have been replaced by automation and artificial intelligence. And even then, they think that the companies who employ such technology and cut jobs should be taxed to cover at least some of the costs.

In the end, we’re still a fairly capitalist country by nature. People who work don’t tend to like the idea of their tax dollars going to giving an income to people who just “sit around” as Ellison put it. But we are at least sympathetic enough to want to help those who were clearly willing to work but lost their slice of the American dream because of technological disruptions to the job market they couldn’t anticipate or do anything about.