Feature Creep and A Basic Income For All

On the heels of recent efforts in Europe, such as seen in Switzerland, the idea of a minimum basic income for all has gotten more and more coverage lately. The idea certainly has its benefits, but I caution against too much early enthusiasm for the idea, for separate reasons than outlined at length in other places (disincentives to work, for example).

First I want to point out that Switzerland also has a mandatory military conscription. Should we enact that too? Just because some non-US country does something doesn’t mean we should – though admittedly it doesn’t mean we should dismiss it out of hand. We can agree on some respects and not others, but I think it’s important in some of these major all-encompassing policy level debates to note that some countries have extremely different views on what sorts of efforts should be solved by collective action. Switzerland, as evidenced by the conscription laws, is very comfortable with this idea apparently. This is a noted feature of many northern European countries that are homogeneous – though they’re recently having their own issues with immigration that may ultimately change their views…

More important in my concern however, is the idea of legislative “feature creep.” Feature creep, in computer software terms (or any industry really, but I’ll stick to the common one for now) is the idea of a bunch of small changes or improvements to a product that threaten to overrun the viability of it as a whole. Basically, you have a program, like an electronic medical record (EMR), that is designed for certain specs. Then, due to complaints or suggestions, you start to add features to the EMR. At the margin, these might all individually seem beneficial. Often times, because these features weren’t included initially* in the specs, they don’t really “fit” anywhere. If you’ve seen a medical professional use an EMR (or better yet, used one yourself) you can really see this in practice: there are a lot of powerful features everywhere, but there’s no sense of cohesion between the different suites of options.**

So how does feature creep apply to a basic income for all, you ask? Well the benefits of a basic income, as Yglesias notes as well, is that the government can do away with the current (spotty at best) welfare net that tries to encompass all the ways we help individuals. If people need things (food, healthcare, education etc) give them money and let them decide how much to give to each instead of forcing food stamps, medicaid and education credits down their throats. Let them decide what’s important. After we were to enact a basic income however, does one really believe these programs would never reappear? In the future, we’d again start adding onto the programs instead of merely upping the amount***, and then we’d have a huge mess. Again, at the margin they might seem like good ideas or necessary, but in the long run they’d be problematic. As voters will always be sympathetic**** to food stamps etc, it threatens to ruin all the benefits of basic income. You either have one program, or the other. But not both.

Lastly, a quick concern about the minimum income for all. How does one control for geography effectively? N.Y has higher cost of living- but that’s because it’s more desirable. Should we “reward” individuals who feel their basic right to live a comfortable life includes living that life in N.Y? Many midwesterners living comfortably at $60k or $70k don’t have that right. I’m afraid we’d just create some sort of benefit-inflation if we rewarded people for living in those areas, instead of encouraging them to live in more “reasonable” places. That being said, some people are forced to live in those areas (family reasons for example) and there will always be minimum-wage type jobs, so I’m unsure the solution. But this problem isn’t unique to minimum income, it also relevant in discussion of the minimum wage.

None of this is to say just because something is hard we shouldn’t do it, but merely pointing out what I see are the biggest obstacles.

*For modern software, it’s more and more common for companies to deliver software iteratively, starting with a “minimal viable product” for the market and then adding features quickly as time moves on. In those cases, one might have thought of the feature will before the initial release that ultimately included it, and thus designed the product initially expecting that future feature, but this is in practice much harder than it sounds.
**No, this isn’t some purposeful HIPAA compliance policy to mitigate concerns with data privacy or anything.
*** After all, the political reality will be that a politician can argue “Well adding foodstamps will only affect those starving at X dollars, but raising the minimum income will be so much more expensive!”
**** “Sympathetic” might be another word for just “I don’t trust people to spend their money wisely” but either way I don’t suspect whatever the rationale behind foot stamps that exists today to just end overnight.