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.

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.

Featured Image -- 7570

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…

View original 1,730 more words

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 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

Income Inequality Growing Across The World

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of 34 mostly wealthy countries, has published the results of a study finding that income inequality is “at its highest since records began”, with the with the United States ranking among the highest on the spectrum.

More from Al Jazeera:

The United States was near the high end of the inequality spectrum, followed by Israel, the United Kingdom and Greece. Only Turkey, Mexico and Chile were found to have higher levels of income inequality than the U.S.

Denmark was the least unequal country according to the report, as measured using the Gini index, a common measure of income distribution. Slovenia, the Slovak Republic and Norway also ranked near the low end of the spectrum.

Overall wealth is even more unevenly distributed than income, according to the report. Across all 34 countries studied, the bottom 40 percent of households were found to possess 3 percent of all wealth. In contrast, the top 10 percent laid claim to half of all wealth, and the top one percent held almost 20 percent of all wealth.

Gurría said the report’s findings demonstrate that inequality slows down economic growth. He urged OECD member countries to adopt more redistributive policies, saying that redirecting wealth flows would benefit not just low-income households but the economy as a whole.

“Well-designed, prudent redistribution does not harm growth”, he said. “In fact, it goes hand-in-hand with growth”.

In addition to tax transfers, the OECD report recommends more investment in education, policies that promote remunerative employment, and measures that “remove barriers to female employment and career progression”. Bringing more women into the workforce and narrowing the pay gap was found to have a mitigating effect on income inequality.

In recent years, global elites have become increasingly concerned about income inequality. Last November, the World Economic Forum, which hosts the annual gathering of political and economic leaders in Davos, Switzerland, put out a report identifying income inequality as the number one trend to watch in 2015.

Lessons From Mexico On Combating Poverty

Given all its present woes, Mexico would not strike most as a model to follow. But as I have mentioned before, for all its political and socioeconomic challenges, namely with respect to crime and corruption, one of the world’s largest economies has a lot going for it. As a “newly industrialized nation” with a broadening middle class, the country of 120 million is taking steps to better harness its burgeoning economic potential.

A good place to start is with the agricultural workers who make up a bulk of the country’s most impoverished people. One state is taking a simple yet profound approach to the problem, as The Atlantic reports:

In the Mexican state of Baja California, which exports huge amounts of strawberries, cucumbers, and tomatoes to the U.S., labor is taking a different tack that might take some of that pressure off of employers, for better or for worse: The local government is reportedly leaning toward paying a portion of farmworkers’ wages, bringing them up to 200 pesos (about $13.30) per day.

The terms of the agreement between farmworkers and the government have yet to be nailed down (for example, how much of the wage increase will be shouldered by government versus industry) but it is refreshing to see a government recognize that significant amounts of workers simply don’t make enough money to live comfortably, and to try to do something about it. And wages are only one part of the equation. The agreement would also have the government take pains to make sure workers are receiving the healthcare and social-security benefits they’re guaranteed by law, and hopefully would make it rarer for crew bosses to sexually harass female farmworkers.

In essence, the government is filling the gap between livable wages and what most companies offer. This might seem like an unlikely or unwarranted solution to most Americans, but it is already the reality, albeit less directly:

A recent study from UC Berkeley’s Labor Center found that nearly three-quarters of people participating in government programs such as Medicaid and food stamps are in families headed by workers. The authors, calling this a “hidden [cost] of low-wage work in America”, estimated that through these programs, taxpayers provide these families with about $150 billion in public support. Additionally, programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit essentially subsidize the wages of workers whose income is below a certain level.

Shouldn’t companies be making up this difference instead of taxpayers? That’s how some state legislatures feel. Starting next year, California will publicly name any company that has more than 100 employees on Medicaid. And in Connecticut, state legislators are considering a bill that would require large employers to pay a penalty for each worker on their rolls earning less than $15 an hour.

Ultimately, what the government of Baja California intends to do is improve the situation that workers are in—something, one would hope, that companies start feeling the pressure to do as well.

It is very telling that the forces that most strongly oppose raising the minimum wage, or providing some sort of government support to workers, are the same ones directly responsible for underpaying their workers and shifting more and more of their companies’ profits to shareholders and top executives.

If businesses (and their supporters) do not want to do more to compensate their employees better, yet also do not want the government to help make the difference, then what exactly is the end game? A sclerotic economy where everyone is just barely getting by, and the demand for goods and services — which these same businesses claim is woefully lacking — remains low? Why should poverty — in any nation, much less the richest one — be seen as an unavoidable fact for so many working people?

The Need To Re-Think Capitalism

Hedge fund manager and philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones II challenges American businesses to incorporate “justness” and ethics into their corporate model. A self-described lover of capitalism, he believes that the economic system has lost its way and is becoming corrupted by greed and a lack of social responsibility — hardly a novel observation, but definitely an interesting one to hear from a wealthy beneficiary of said system.

His ten minute TED Talk below is highly informative and dense with charts and data showing just how much the nation’s business elites have become out of touch and self-serving.

Jones II’s message appeals to both self-interest and compassion: his contention is not only that it is more ethical to utilize vast profits to do more social good — through corporate charity, better wages, etc. — but that making capitalism fairer and more beneficial to society is the only way to prevent less desirable (to capitalists) alternative means to that end — namely higher taxes, revolution, and war (implicitly socialism or some other Leftist movement would be a threat, but it would allegedly operate through any or all of those). Continue reading

Survey Finds Majority of Americans Face Near-Poverty

CBS News reports on a recent poll that found what most us no doubt know well: that the average American is teetering on the brink of poverty and hardship:

Four out of five U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.

Survey data exclusive to The Associated Press points to an increasingly globalized U.S. economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs as reasons for the trend.

The report classifies “economic insecurity” as a year or more of periodic joblessness, reliance on government aid such as food stamps, or income below 150 percent of the poverty line. When all races are taken into account, the risk of succumbing to one or all of these incidents rises to an incredible 79 percent.

The breakdown by race is particularly telling, as it signifies just how broad the impact of economic inequality and stagnation has been:

While racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty, race disparities in the poverty rate have narrowed substantially since the 1970s, census data show. Economic insecurity among whites also is more pervasive than is shown in the government’s poverty data, engulfing more than 76 percent of white adults by the time they turn 60, according to a new economic gauge being published next year by the Oxford University Press.

Marriage rates are in decline across all races, and the number of white mother-headed households living in poverty has risen to the level of black ones.

Nationwide, the count of America’s poor remains stuck at a record number: 46.2 million, or 15 percent of the population, due in part to lingering high unemployment following the recession. While poverty rates for blacks and Hispanics are nearly three times higher, by absolute numbers the predominant face of the poor is white.

More than 19 million whites fall below the poverty line of $23,021 for a family of four, accounting for more than 41 percent of the nation’s destitute, nearly double the number of poor blacks.

Sometimes termed “the invisible poor” by demographers, lower-income whites generally are dispersed in suburbs as well as small rural towns, where more than 60 percent of the poor are white. Concentrated in Appalachia in the East, they are numerous in the industrial Midwest and spread across America’s heartland, from Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma up through the Great Plains.

Buchanan County, in southwest Virginia, is among the nation’s most destitute based on median income, with poverty hovering at 24 percent. The county is mostly white, as are 99 percent of its poor.

There is no ignoring the racial dimension to poverty, and the roles played by both social and institutionalized racism. But class is increasingly becoming a determining factor, as those lacking the resources and connections needed to advance in the post-industrial economy — the vast majority of Americans — enjoy less of the country’s vast economic potential.

The U.S. remains the richest country in the world by a significant margin, and its economy has continued to grow rather healthily by global standards. There is no reason why so much of its population remains immiserated or, at best, hanging on by a thread. The capital and resources are there, but they are not being allocated and invested properly.

More corporate profits are going to shareholders and upper management, rather than in workers’ pay and benefits. More public revenue is being siphoned off by the military or through tax breaks and subsidies for the wealthy and big business. The political economy is woefully inefficient and tapping into the potential of the American public, whether through the provision of affordable education and job training, or by rewarding hard work through reasonable, liveable wages.

How we fix that is a whole different conversation for another day.