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Stockton's $500 basic income experiment is a commie-libertarian pipe dream

Stockton's $500 basic income experiment is a commie-libertarian pipe dream
Downtown Stockton. (Los Angeles Times)

Just driving through a couple of blocks near downtown Stockton — over bridges, down Martin Luther King Boulevard, within eyesight of the San Joaquin River — showed me why this Central Valley city of 300,000 has such a rundown reputation. There was a man passed out against a wall, a brown bag just barely covering up his tall boy. Trash-strewn main streets. People loitered around abandoned buildings while guarding shopping carts that towered with sundries.

In the popular imagination, Stockton is the Detroit of California. The only thing I knew about it growing up is that a gunman massacred five elementary schoolchildren there in 1989. But it made national news when it had one of the worst foreclosure rates during the financial crisis and the state’s second highest per-capita rate of violent crime. More recently, Stockton went broke in 2012, one of the largest municipal bankruptcies in American history.

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But a new Stockton is earning praise from progressives — and lots of news media attention — thanks to 27-year-old Mayor Michael Tubbs. His story is readymade for “60 Minutes”: Born into poverty to a teenage mother, he went on to graduate from Stanford and get an internship with the Obama administration. He returned home and ran successfully for city council in 2012 with endorsements from the former president and Oprah.

Tubbs’ is about to use Stockton to field test a grand social experiment — a universal basic income. Long dismissed as socialist hooey, a basic income is a government-granted guaranteed amount of money given regularly to individuals. The thinking is simple: A little extra money never hurt anyone, and it especially assists those who need it.

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A basic income does nothing to encourage people to do more than just receive money — no appeal to better your community, no requirement to pay it forward.


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Stockton’s pilot program, scheduled to start in 2019, will hand out $500 a month to about 100 residents. Tubbs is trying it with encouragement and financial support from a network backed by billionaire Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who wants to expand it nationally and sees Stockton as a perfect petri dish.

Though advocates on the left and right have argued for a version of a universal basic income for decades, the idea has gained traction in recent years from Silicon Valley types, who argue that their automation and artificial intelligence efforts will push millions of people out of work.

Tubbs has a great line to respond to critics who say people should work instead of just getting no-strings-attached payments: “Work does have some value and some dignity,” Tubbs told Politico in an interview last month. “But I don’t think working 14 hours and not being able to pay your bills, or working two jobs and not being able — there’s nothing inherently dignified about that.”

To me, the problem with Tubbs’ proposal is that it suggests that $500 — or any amount of cash — is what gives people dignity. Forgive me for sounding like Dr. Seuss, but if you can throw $500 a month at someone to help keep them afloat, shouldn’t you instead help build them a boat?

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The whole universal basic income concept accepts as inevitable the disappearance of blue-collar jobs, which is what wrecked cities like Stockton. It doesn’t even ask the “1 percent” to consider how their eternal quest for profits and personal wealth endangers society; it says, rather, just pay your extra tax and keep on keeping on.

An extra $500 a month helps, for sure — where can I sign up? But a basic income does nothing to encourage people to do more than just receive money — no appeal to better your community, no requirement to pay it forward, no nada. It’s a commie pipe dream combined with a libertarian belief that cash can solve anything.

Instead, Tubbs should take the idea of a basic income and use it as a reward for those who want to succeed and uplift others in the process.

Give that money specifically to people who seek training or schooling. Instead of blindly taxing the rich, Hughes should craft something to incentivize companies to hire and apprentice society’s downtrodden. And Tubbs should encourage good-paying jobs to settle in Stockton, and ask companies to hire people with little formal education or a criminal past — both problems that affect Stockton residents more than other cities.

I commend Tubbs for proposing something new in a city looking for something, anything. But I’d also ask him to consider that a better solution exists among the small entrepreneurs who occupied a dirt lot off MLK and Hunter Street on a recent Saturday morning. There, dignity came wrapped in a corn tortilla alongside carne adobada served by the El Grullense taco truck. Around the truck was a hive of commerce — an ice cream man, a fruit lady, men in work boots grabbing a quick lunch. This underground economy had its own underground economy: two African American teens doing a brisk business selling Golden State Warriors T-shirts out of the trunk of their car.

Meanwhile, residents of a homeless encampment nearby asked for handouts; some customers responded by buying them burritos with the money that they had worked for.

Tubbs thinks that there’s no dignity in struggling to not “make it.” But the hustle is inherently dignified — and the drive and ingenuity that comes from it is far more powerful and freeing to individuals than getting a couple hundred on the first of the month.

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Twitter: @GustavoArellano

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