The Negative Income Tax and Basic Income are pretty much the same thing

I’ve been talking about the Negative Income Tax lately, and equating it with the idea of a Basic Income. I think most of the policies’ respective advocates would deny that they’re the same policy. In this post I’m going to outline why that’s incorrect and I’m happy to say that they’re basically the same thing.

For the uninitiated, a Negative Income Tax is a form of welfare that replaces most existing welfare schemes with a single payment that supplements the income of the unemployed and low-paid. The payment is withdrawn as your earnings increase, ideally at a gradual enough rate that increasing your earnings (and hence reducing leisure time) is always worthwhile.

An example: a £5,000 basic payment at a 50% marginal withdrawal rate (this means that for every additional pound earned, the worker will receive 50p less in NIT payments). Someone with an income of zero would receive an NIT payment of £5,000, or just under £100/week. If they took a job that paid £5,000/year, they would receive a top-up of £2,500/year; that paid £7,500, a top-up of £1,250/year. Once they reached £10,000/year, they would receive nothing in NIT.

This idea was supported by Milton Friedman, among others, and has a reasonably strong pedigree on the right. Even libertarians who object to income redistribution in principle usually concede that a Negative Income Tax is the least bad form of welfare, because it is administratively simple and perverts incentives less than most welfare schemes. It is particularly appealing to many liberals and libertarians because it is unpaternalistic.

A Basic Income, on the other hand, is usually conceived as a flat payment to everybody irrespective of circumstance. This leads to a very big problem: assuming it replaces most forms of welfare as an NIT does, a basic income high enough for unemployed workers to subsist on would simply not be affordable to pay to everyone. A policy that ideally would be designed to help the poor ends up being a very expensive subsidy to people who do not need extra money.

Advocates of the Basic Income recognize this, and their solution is typically to use the tax system to ‘claw back’ the payment from relatively high earners. So everyone gets the money, but it is withdrawn according to earnings.

In practice, that’s more or less the same as a Negative Income Tax – the only difference is whether the withdrawal takes place at the ‘front’ of the payment (as with the NIT), or the ‘end’ (as with the Basic Income). Strange as it may seem, the policies advocated by Milton Friedman and the Green Party are the same in all but the technical detail.

But even if there is a surprising amount of agreement in terms of the kind of welfare we’d like to see, the detail may be more difficult to agree on. How much should a ‘basic income’ be? When should it begin to be withdrawn, and at what rate?

Questions like this are, I think, likely to be where what breaks up this (unholy?) alliance. But maybe not. Traditional policies like the minimum wage probably do more harm than good, and, rightfully, the question of how to improve the lives of the low paid does not seem to be going away. It will take compromise, but in the Negative Income Tax / Basic Income, we may have an answer.

Ignore the doomsayers: The recovery is real

Some commentators claim that the UK’s current economic recovery is illusory. They say that the recovery is based on an artificial boom fuelled by loose money and will eventually come crashing down to earth.

I think it is very likely that this view is wrong, for at least two reasons. One, the UK does not have loose money that would fuel a credit boom. Two, the best tool we have for telling if the recovery is ‘real’ or not is the market. And the market is telling us that it sees things as looking good.

The idea that we have loose money is extremely common. It is based on the assumption that a Bank of England base rate of 0.5%, historically very low, must mean that money is loose. This is what Milton Friedman referred to as the ‘interest rate fallacy’. It is a fallacy because it fails to ask the key question: ‘compared to what?’

That ‘what’ is, or ought to be, the ‘neutral rate of interest’ – the interest rate where, in David Beckworth’s words, “monetary policy is neither too simulative nor too contractionary and is pushing the economy toward its full potential.” The tightness of money is determined by the central bank rate relative to the neutral rate. If the neutral rate of interest is lower than the base rate, then money is tight.

Is the neutral rate of interest in the UK currently above or below 0.5%? It’s hard to say. Milton Friedman pointed out that usually low rates were a sign of tight, not easy money. This is because low rates almost always coincide with very low inflation, nominal GDP growth and money growth—which Friedman pointed out were much better ways of assessing the stance of policy.

It’s possible to infer from things like NGDP growth (well-below trend until recently) that money has been unusually tight. NGDP growth seems to be returning to the trend rate, if not the trend level, that it was before the crisis. People calling ‘easy money’ may disagree, but if they are simply pointing to low interest rates without trying to compare them to the neutral rate, they’re not proving anything at all.

But even if it’s not down to easy money, maybe the recovery really does sit upon a throne of lies that will inevitably collapse. How could we tell?

Since the world is very, very complex, it is unlikely that one individual expert or panel of experts will be able to possess all the information they would need to make reliable predictions about the future.

Where possible, we should prefer the ‘wisdom of crowds’. And we have something that can do so very effectively: the market. And the market seems pretty optimistic: the FTSE 100 is growing strongly; firms are taking on new staff; gilt yields are extremely low.

Second-guessing the market is particularly unusual for people on the right of the political spectrum. As Josh Barro put it recently, “A conservative is somebody who thinks every market is efficient — except the Treasury bond market.” (A point worth remembering next time you read about the UK’s “looming debt crisis”.)

Of course markets can get things wrong. There is a high degree of uncertainty involved in all predictions like this. But, given a choice between the aggregated judgement of millions of market participants, all bringing their local knowledge to bear, and the judgment of a few experts, I’ll go with the market.

In summary, there’s no reason to think that either we have excessively loose money or that the recovery is illusory. Note that mine is an entirely negative argument – I am not claiming that money is too tight, or just right, nor am I claiming that markets are correct. I’m saying that, given the information we have available to us, we should resist the urge to doomsay. In short: don’t worry, be happy.

Demand Matters

Markets are about supply and demand. Scarcely a more banal thing could be said in economics, and yet some of the time it seems like free-market economists look only at supply. Glance over policy recommendations from a free-marketeer and you’ll often see only tools for freeing up supply—labour market deregulation, planning reform, a bonfire of the quangos, an end to unbalancing subsidies or tax breaks, liberalisation of trade barriers. These are all fantastic things, which we definitely need. And even through the visor of the AS/AD model, even in a slump, these can make things better both by cutting prices and by raising wealth. But either deliberately or unconsciously, these economists are completely avoiding the demand side.

Is this because there are no doctrinaire libertarian things that can be done on the demand side? I’ve certainly heard many policies like quantitative easing called “socialism” by fellow travellers, but I’d like to think that my libertarian-leaning friends were more thoughtful than instinctively dismissing ideas they see as ideologically impure out of hand.

And further than that, there are things we can do to make the demand side more libertarian, at least if we don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. School voucher systems are not decried for their “socialism” by libertarians despite the fact that under these systems schools are still paid for and run by the state. Monetary policies that are more free market (and more sensible) than our current one should be looked upon in the same way. It’s not the case that anything short of abolishing the central bank is “socialism”—unless we want to completely devalue the word. And even if an intermediate policy were a form of “socialism” or “central planning”, the realistic alternative is not a free market in money, but an abysmal central plan!

What are these intermediate policies that free-marketeers seem to be ignoring? Firstly there is nominal income targeting, which relies on markets both to stabilise demand and to allocate that demand among competing industries according to consumer preferences; and secondly counter-cyclical taxes, which rise automatically in good times and fall in bad times. Those are both thoroughly libertarian and entirely focused on demand.

In fact, the two most important libertarian economists of the 20th century—Friedrich A. Hayek and Milton Friedman—both endorsed demand-side policy, in the right circumstances. Friedman blamed the US Great Depression on the Federal Reserve, allowing a massive collapse in the money supply and aggregate demand. Hayek said that after the inevitable collapse of a misallocated capital structure there could also be “secondary deflations”, where aggregate demand collapses and there is a costly adjustment period. Both would support monetary policy to deal with this issue—stabilising demand, so as to avoid painful adjustments from big inflationary or deflationary shocks. If money is non-neutral in the boom, why would it be neutral in the downturn?

One response libertarians might make is that Say’s Law shows there is nothing we can do about demand. But Say’s Law clearly doesn’t hold in the short-run, and Austrian economists who rightly critique the assumptions economists often make about equilibria should be absolutely clear of this. In the short-run, a dip in aggregate demand—absent any response from the government, central bank, or hypothetical free banks working together—necessitates a period of deflation. But we know that (at least nominal) wages are sticky-downwards, meaning that calling for an adjustment to the new equilibrium means calling for years of the grave evil of unemployment foisted on millions. Say’s Law reasserts itself in the medium- to long-run, and by then the misery and destruction of potential wealth has all already happened.

What libertarians are missing is that the relentless focus on supply is leaving them almost completely out of the conversation, and thus leading to worse policy than necessary. If free marketeers were talking about the best things to do on the demand side, as well as on the supply side, then there would be less of the all-eggs-in-one-basket big project spending stimulus, and more diverse market-oriented ways of countering the demand shortfall.

Milton Friedman on the Negative Income Tax

Milton Friedman was born 101 years ago today. The video above isn’t as snappy as many of the great Friedman videos online, but I like it because it shows the kind of libertarian Friedman was. Instead of dismissing any policy that fell short of abolishing the state as ‘socialism’, he came up with innovative and practicable steps towards a freer and richer world. His policy proposals are still relevant and fresh (unlike many of FA Hayek’s, for instance) — as a replacement for existing welfare, a Negative Income Tax today could liberate people from the benefits trap. Daniel Hannan’s piece on Friedman and school vouchers — another idea as fresh and important today as it was when he first proposed it — is well worth reading too.

Milton Friedman’s objection to immigration

Free market supporters of immigration controls often quote Milton Friedman in support of their position:

There is no doubt that free and open immigration is the right policy in a libertarian state, but in a welfare state it is a different story: the supply of immigrants will become infinite.

On the face of it, this is a powerful argument for restriction. As I’ve noted in the past, whether we like it or not people are dependent on state institutions like the NHS and it would be a bad thing for those things to crumble without the reforms that make market-based alternatives viable.

But are things as clear as they seem? Elsewhere, Friedman also said:

Look, for example, at the obvious, immediate, practical example of illegal Mexican immigration. Now, that Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as it’s illegal.

I think Friedman vastly overstates his case in his final line (it’s only good if it’s illegal?), and empirically he seems to be mistaken (the fiscal contribution of immigrants is usually positive in general, and has been positive in the UK in particular) but still, let’s take his point as given. Does that make immigration controls the best option?

No. There are ‘keyhole solutions’ we can implement instead – that is, solutions that are specifically designed to address the supposed problems that go with open borders.

We could require that immigrants post bonds priced according to the average cost to the state of someone of their age. We could require immigrants to provide for their own health insurance, unemployment insurance, education, etc. We could restrict the use of the NHS and other state services to immigrants who are working. And so on. The point is that most of the problems associated with immigration are not best solved by restrictions on immigration. Don’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Well, OK, but we are where we are. Those solutions are nice in a think tank fantasy-land, but they’re never going to happen, you might say. (Well, not with that attitude, they’re not!) For the sake of argument, what if these keyhole solutions were irrelevant and Friedman was empirically correct?

In that case, his point about illegal immigration being the best kind of immigration – and indeed, a net positive overall – might really be worth thinking about. As Will Wilkinson has argued, people who follow Friedman on immigration should then argue not for restrictive immigration controls, but restrictive immigration laws paired with a toothless Border Agency, or one simply told in practice to ignore these laws. (Much as most decent police officers ignored anti-sodomy laws for some time before those laws were repealed.)

So maybe that’s a Friedmanite ‘keyhole solution’ for people concerned about immigrants sucking the welfare state dry: keep immigration laws the way they are, but shut down the UK Border Agency and treat the laws as the silly anachronisms they are.