The U.S. Federal Government is in a partial government shutdown over a budget dispute regarding building a multi-billion dollar wall on the country’s southern border. It is highstakes brinkmanship involving 800,000 workers who are furloughed without pay until Congress and the President come to an agreement. Each day that passes brings increasing financial strain on those 800,000 Americans, who are facing economic uncertainty during this political hostage situation.
Possibly in an attempt to be helpful, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) tweeted sample letters that furloughed workers could send to creditors. They were incredibly offensive and humiliating, and would likely be met with rolled eyes and laughter from landlords and mortgage companies. But, (in an attempt to find a silver lining here) the letters may offer a window into an alternative world, with a few minor edits.
“As we discussed, I am a Federal employee who has recently been furloughed due to a lack of funding of my agency,” one letter reads. “Because of this, my income has been severely cut and I am unable to pay the entire cost of my mortgage, along with my other expenses.”
“I will keep in touch with you to keep you informed about my income status and I would like to discuss with you the possibility of trading my services to perform maintenance (e.g. painting, carpentry work) in exchange for partial rent payments.”
Now, let’s imagine what these letters would say if we had a universal basic income:
“I would like to discuss with you what I am doing during the government shutdown while I am furloughed. Since I am able to subsist on a basic income, I have an improved ability to withstand the dysfunction caused by this breakdown of the political system. The basic income that I receive allows me the ability to spend my time volunteering at non-profits that are working to change campaign finance, reduce gerrymandering, and open up the American political system to more viewpoints through electoral reform such as Instant Runoff Voting and Ranked Choice voting.”
“During the government shutdown, I will be on furlough, and since my basic income has reduced my economic anxiety, I could meet you at a café to discuss the causes of the political dysfunction that led to the shutdown. Voters in 2016 expressed frustration at a lack of economic prospects, as the economic system sends most profit to the top 1% instead of the bottom 99% (this is also behind the “yellow vest” protests in France). Voters’ angst is also a reflection of widespread denial about the Western World hitting the limits to economic growth due to a decades-long decline in cheap energy, which is now starting to impact voters’ economic prospects and lifestyles. The resulting economic contraction will likely lead to scapegoating of minorities and immigrants unless we decouple economic growth from carbon emissions. CapGlobalCarbon would be a good first step in that more positive direction toward a fairer world, and could also help save democracy from the rise of fascism.”
Perhaps this overstates the impact of a basic income or of CapGlobalCarbon on the life of a furloughed worker. Some economic anxiety will remain, just like even if the United States eventually adopts universal healthcare (Medicare for All), people will still get sick and sometimes die. But the point is, furloughed or unemployed workers would not be subjected to the same type of humiliating groveling to creditors that OPM believes is necessary in a non-basic income world. And to the 800,000 currently furloughed government workers, that would probably sound pretty good right now.
Featured image: Line of unemployed men at soup kitchen, Chicago,1931. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unemployment#/media/File:Unemployed_men_queued_outside_a_depression_soup_kitchen_opened_in_Chicago_by_Al_Capone,_02-1931_-_NARA_-_541927.jpg
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Mike Sandler is the current Chair of FEASTA’s Board of Directors and is a climate change and sustainability professional with experience working for nonprofits and government. In 2001 Mike co-founded the Center for Climate Protection based in Sonoma County, California. Inspired by Peter Barnes and Richard Douthwaite, he has advocated for revenues from a price on carbon to be returned back to the public as a per capita dividend or share. He actively promotes CapGlobalCarbon and he has written on green monetary reform and basic income, some of which is archived on his author page on HuffPost.