Finland and the Netherlands Experiment With Basic Income

Finland became the first country in Europe to announce plans for the implementation of a basic income program, according to the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN). (To recap: a basic income is a universal, unconditional form of payment to individuals that covers their living costs. It allow people to choose to work more flexible hours and devote more time to non-work related activities, from caregiving and volunteering, to studying and leisure.)

The commitment consists of one line: ‘Implement a Basic Income experiment’, in the ‘Health and Welfare’ section of the programme.

The main party of government, the Centre Party and the new Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, are known to be supportive of Basic Income, but his new government partners, the populist Finns Party and conservative NCP have not spoken publicly on the issue. The scant reference to Basic Income raises some doubts about the government’s commitment to the policy.

So while it is far from a done deal — especially as the government has yet to release any further details, including a timeframe — it is nonetheless a big step, as few other countries, even in socially progressive Europe, have ever made such a formal, nationwide commitment.

Meanwhile, the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, another country that has been mulling over a basic income, is set to implement a plan of its own. The intention is not only to determine if a basic income will help people in absolute terms, but to see how its efficiency compares to the status quo of welfare payments. From The Independent:

University College Utrecht has paired with the city to place people on welfare on a living income, to see if a system of welfare without requirements will be successful.

Alderman for Work and Income Victor Everhardt told DeStad Utrecht: “One group is will have compensation and consideration for an allowance, another group with a basic income without rules and of course a control group which adhere to the current rules.”

“Our data shows that less than 1.5 percent abuse the welfare, but, before we get into all kinds of principled debate about whether we should or should not enter, we need to first examine if basic income even really works.

“What happens if someone gets a monthly amount without rules and controls? Will someone sitting passively at home or do people develop themselves and provide a meaningful contribution to our society?”

It is not surprising that the Dutch would lead the way in this experiment, given that they already have a well-established fondness for less traditional work environments — 46.1 percent of the labor force works part-time, the highest proportion in the European Union, and the nation is nonetheless broadly prosperous, with a high rate of life satisfaction. This is a country that already leads the way in work-life balance, so it would be interesting to see how this endeavor goes and whether it will catch on elsewhere in the country or beyond.

Finland and the Netherlands are the first developed nations to experiment with a guaranteed basic income since the 1970s, when Canada conducted a pilot project dubbed “Mincome” in a small town, with great results. Other experiments have been performed more recently in India, Namibia and Brazil, each one of them reporting measurable, positive outcomes in everything from poverty reduction to healthcare and general wellness.

As BIEN notes, there is an increasing interest in Basic Income worldwide, as well there should be: from mounting inequality to a dearth of well-paying and sustainable jobs, there are plenty of good reasons to consider at least trying out this streamlined and promising approach to alleviating poverty and improving quality of life.

The Countries With the Greatest Well-Being

According to the most recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, Panama once again takes the top spot in the number of people reporting high personal well-being, followed by Costa Rica in second place and Puerto Rico in third.

In fourth place was Switzerland, the top European country, which along with Austria (in ninth place) was the only non-Latin American country in the top ten.

The United States came in at No. 23, one spot behind Israel and one ahead of Canada.

This is the second time the report has been compiled (see the first one’s results here). It looks at how more than 146,000 randomly selected adults, spanning 145 countries and areas, respond to questions about five areas related to their well-being: purpose; social; financial; community; and physical. Here are the specific questions, courtesy of NPR. Continue reading

How Many Earths Does It Take To Support An American Lifestyle?

It is no secret that the world’s seven billion-plus people vary wildly in their consumption habits: the subsistence farmer in sub-Saharan Africa uses far fewer resources to support his or her lifestyle than a wealthy financier living in Manhattan. Disparities also exist within nations, as well as between countries of similar socioeconomic status (for example, the average middle-class Japanese uses less space and energy than the average middle-class American).

In 2012, science writer Tim De Chant produced an infographic illustrating the amount of land that would be required if the entire world lived like the populations of nine selected countries. This includes not just living space, but land needed to cultivate food crops, support livestock, grow cotton for clothing, and so on. Needless to say, the results are interesting, as they show quite vividly just how differently people throughout the world live. Continue reading

IMF Study Finds Trickle-Down Economics Does Not Work

The notion that as the rich get richer, the benefits ultimately  “trickle down” to the rest of society has been thoroughly debunked since it first emerged by in the 1980s. Even though no amount of evidence seems enough to kill off these pernicious and invalidated idea, it never hurts to add more ammunition to the argument — especially when it comes from an otherwise centrist and mainstream institution like the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  Continue reading

What If Students Stopped Paying Back Their Loans?

That is the provocative question posed by Vice to Professor Andrew Ross, who teaches Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. As one of the founders of debt resistance groups like Occupy Student Debt and Strike Debt; a member of the Debt Collective; an advocate for the rights of debtors; and an author of Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusalhe is clearly something of an expert on the subject. His answer?

A strike of any kind is a tactic. It’s not a solution. It’s a tactic towards a goal, and the goal here ultimately is for the US to join the long list of industrialized countries around the world that make it their business to offer a free public higher education system. None of these other countries are as affluent as the US; there’s no question that this country could afford to do so. In fact, we produced an estimate not that long ago about how cheap it would be for the federal government to cover tuition at all two and four-year colleges. There are several estimates in circulation, and a few years ago that kind of proposal was dismissed out of hand. But now we’re beginning to see it pop up on Capitol Hill in various forms. It’s a proposal that’s part of Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president. It’s a proposal that pushed President Obama in the direction of making community colleges free, at least for two years. It’s becoming a little more respectable to talk about [solutions for student debt], on Capitol Hill and in the public sphere in general. None of that would have happened without a student debt resistance.

Read the rest of this illuminating interview here. Given the mounting economic and social consequences of this issue, one can expect the public debate about student debt and the cost of higher education to only intensify.

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Noam Chomsky: The Death of the American University

Eupraxsophy:

“The university imposes costs on students and on faculty who are not only untenured but are maintained on a path that guarantees that they will have no security. All of this is perfectly natural within corporate business models. It’s harmful to education, but education is not their goal.”

Originally posted on Vox Populi:

On hiring faculty off the tenure track

That’s part of the business model. It’s the same as hiring temps in industry or what they call “associates” at Walmart, employees that aren’t owed benefits. It’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility. When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line.

The effective owners are the trustees (or the legislature, in the case of state universities), and they want to keep costs down and make sure that labor is docile and obedient. The way to do that is, essentially, temps. Just as the hiring of temps has gone way up in the neoliberal period, you’re getting the same phenomenon in the universities.

The idea is…

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U.S. Hospitals Charge Patients Three Times Market Rate

Reports of widespread exploitation and inefficiency in the U.S. healthcare system is hardly shocking anymore, not that it is any less disquieting. From accessibility and cost-effectiveness, to health outcomes like life expectancy and maternal health, the U.S. consistently performs mediocre at best in various metric of performance.

Some months back, I shared an article from Slate that pinned much of this problem on greedy hospitals. A recent study reported in The Atlantic only further bolsters this grim assessment:

North Okaloosa [in Florida], along with New Jersey’s Carepoint Health-Bayonne Hospital, tops the list of the U.S. hospitals with the highest markups for their services, according to a new study in Health Affairs. The study found that, on average, the 50 hospitals with the highest markups charged people 10 times more than what it cost them to provide the treatments in 2012.

On average, all U.S. hospitals charged patients (or their insurers) 3.4 times what the federal government thinks these procedures cost. “In other words, when the hospital incurs $100 of Medicare-allowable costs, the hospital charges $340″, explain the authors, Ge Bai of Washington and Lee University and Gerard F. Anderson of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The ratio of hospital charges to costs has only increased over time: In 1984, it was just 1.35, but by 2011, it was 3.3.

In the study, the facilities that marked up their prices the most were more likely to be for-profit (as opposed to not-for-profit), urban hospitals that are affiliated with a larger health system. Community Health Systems operates half of the 50 hospitals with the highest markups. The U.S. Justice Department has investigated the Franklin, Tennessee-based hospital chain for the way it bills Medicare and Medicaid. In February, the company and three New Mexico Hospitals agreed to pay $75 million to settle a case in which Community Health Systems was accused of making illegal donations to county governments, which were then used to obtain matching Medicaid payments.

Overall, three-quarters of the hospitals on the highest-markup list are in the South, and 40 percent of them are in Florida.

Only Maryland and West Virginia restrict how much hospitals can charge. The Affordable Care Act makes not-for-profit hospitals offer discounts to uninsured people, but it doesn’t set limitations on bills sent to patients treated at out-of-network or for-profit hospitals.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that the system is especially predatory towards those that are either most vulnerable in terms of their healthcare needs (such as having chronic or potentially fatal ailments) and those with “the least market power” (e.g. the poor, who also tend be medically vulnerable). Equally unsurprising is how these overcharges are found to contribute to “exceptionally high medical bills, which often leads to personal bankruptcy or the avoidance of needed medical services” — little wonder why the U.S. fares poorly in health outcomes.

As expected, the solutions to such an entrenched and widespread problem will not be easy or politically tenable (at least not yet).

In an statement, Jarrod Bernstein, spokesman for Carepoint Health-Bayonne Hospital, said, “These charge prices affect less than 7 percent of our overall encounters system-wide, and without it, or adequate contract reimbursements, our safety net hospitals that serve the most vulnerable among us risk closure. That is why we are calling for a new healthcare reimbursement system that offers equivalent rates for all patient encounters regardless of where they live that will make these charges irrelevant”.

The study authors say one way to fix this might be to require hospitals to post their markups online so patients can price-compare before they go. But that wouldn’t work for emergencies, for people who live far from all but one hospital, or for the many people for whom hospital charging codes are, very understandably, inscrutable.

Alternatively, legislators could say that hospitals can only charge people a certain amount more than what they would charge Medicare, which usually negotiates some of the lowest rates. Or, more states could do what Maryland, Germany, and Switzerland all do and aggressively limit how much all hospitals can charge, period.

But as the authors note, that last solution would be “subject to considerable political challenges”, which is perhaps a polite way of saying, “will make the Obamacare battle of 2010 seem like a casual game of bridge among friends”.

Maybe it won’t be so politically challenging to change the system once push comes to shove. How much longer will people put up with being preyed upon in their most vulnerable circumstances? Profiting off of sickness and vulnerability — whether as an insurer or hospital — is as morally repugnant as it gets. How could this be tolerable? What does it say about our culture?

The Starving Educator

With universities following the lead of private businesses in “cutting costs” at the expense of workers, college professors — once among the most respectable and well-paying careers — are quickly becoming among the poorest workers in the country. A growing cohort of instructors — already around half — are adjuncts or “contingent faculty”, lacking job security and decent pay yet otherwise doing all the work of a typical full-time professor. Shockingly, at least a quarter of all higher-ed instructors are on some sort of public aid, such as food stamps. The Atlantic has more on this disquieting development:

Adjunct professors earn a median of $2,700 for a semester-long class, according to a survey of thousands of part-time faculty members. In 2013, NPR reported that the average annual pay for adjuncts is between $20,000 and $25,000, while a March 2015 survey conducted by Pacific Standard among nearly 500 adjuncts found that a majority earn less than $20,000 per year from teaching. Some live on less than that and supplement their income with public assistance: A recent report from UC Berkeley found that nearly a quarter of all adjunct professors receive public assistance, such as Medicaid or food stamps. Indeed, many adjuncts earn less than the federal minimum wage. Unless they work 30 hours or more at one college, they’re not eligible for health insurance from that employer, and like other part-time employees, they do not qualify for other benefits.

A year ago, The Atlantic reported on the poor working conditions faced by adjuncts—who, depending on the needs of the school, are often hired a month before the semester begins—beyond their low salaries. To make ends meet, they may teach courses at multiple colleges; they could teach Milton in the morning on one campus and Shakespeare in the afternoon on another. Moreover, according to the analysis, adjuncts are typically excluded from administrative and departmental meetings, meaning they might not be familiar with school policies or other faculty members. On top of instruction, the article explained, they often have to maintain a research agenda and hunt for jobs at faraway conferences without financial support for the trip from a university.

Over the years, the number of tenured professors has dropped while that of adjunct professors has risen, as colleges attempt to rein in costs. Public colleges in particular rely on adjuncts.

Aside from the obvious injustice that comes with exploiting these workers, such a trend is also having consequences for secondary education, which is already fraught with issues of cost.

[S]ome suggest that many adjuncts are unable to provide students with the same quality instruction as do tenured faculty. Judy Olson, a longtime part-time professor who currently works as an adjunct at California State University, Los Angeles, acknowledged that her financial concerns sometimes detract time from lesson planning. She cited other adjuncts who she said are unable to maintain independent research that could otherwise enrich classroom discussions. When administrators hire adjuncts only days before the class begins, she added, they can’t properly prepare syllabi and order books.

Adjuncts readily admit they cannot support students outside the classroom, such as when students need extra help understanding an assignment, general college advisement, or a letter of recommendation for a graduate program. And even if they had the time to provide these services, many colleges don’t provide their adjuncts with office space, so they meet with their pupils in coffee shops or at library desks. Olson for her part said that in the past she’s had to meet with students by the trunk of her car, where she kept all her books and papers as she commuted between different college campuses. Without formal meeting spaces, students may find it difficult to locate their professors when they need assistance on their classwork.

Meeting space aside, adjuncts often report that they simply cannot answer common questions from the students about the requirements for the major, course sequencing, or related classes at the college; to get this information, students instead have to track down tenured faculty on campus. Same with letters of recommendation for admission to graduate programs or post-college jobs: Some adjunct professors may not be willing to write them because they aren’t paid for the time, or students may find it difficult to locate former teachers who are no longer employed at that college. Even if they are willing, colleges might not provide adjuncts with institutional letterhead for the recommendations.

As the article goes on to note, many students and parents, not to mention the wider public, are unaware of this pressing issue. Indeed, universities make a point not to distinguish between these two very different professorial tiers. Many students are being taught by someone as impoverished as the typical fast-food or retail associate (whose plights are comparatively better known). It is shameful how little universities and governments are doing to correct this problem, instead shifting all the costs to non-faculty staff (e.g. overpaid managers and administrators of dubious necessity).

The Lasting Damage of High Inequality

In my previous post, I shared the grim results of a recent OECD study that found a consistent rise in wealth and income inequality across much of the developed world, with the U.S. taking the lead among the richest countries (though comparatively less wealthy countries Chile, Mexico, and Turkey were ahead).

Reporting on the same survey, the New York Times delved further and explored the impact that this worsening inequality is already having on societies: Continue reading