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We Are All Disabled

My first post mentioned that the most remarkable thing about basic income is that it’s actually possible for us to hand out money to people. Interestingly, what makes basic income possible is also what makes it possible for us to pay out other cash benefits. Namely, the economy has sufficient resources to produce what people will buy with the money.

In March of 2013, This American Life aired an episode about the increasing number of Americans receiving federal disability benefits instead of working. For a society that expects people to earn their livings through jobs, this is a problem. Understandably concerned and curious, NPR reporter Chana Joffe-Walt spent six months investigating this troubling phenomenon.

[I]f you could prove to the Social Security Administration that your disability prevents you from holding down a job, the government will pay you money. — Chana Joffe-Walt | Trends With Benefits

The above quote already gives us a hint about what’s going on. Disability, as defined by the Social Security Administration, is determined by what we expect people to be able to do.

The reason this question can come up at all is that disability is basically a made up concept. There’s no diagnosis called disability. There’s not a blood test you can take. You don’t go to the doctor and the doctor says, ‘Well, we’ve run the tests, and it looks like you have disability.’ — Chana Joffe-Walt | Trends With Benefits

Whether you can hold down a job depends on your individual capabilities, but it also depends on the labor market. When we expect people to have jobs and jobs become harder to get, more people are going to become disabled. This is true almost by definition.

Imagine an employment waterline, gradually rising through higher and higher levels of competence. In the distant past, maybe you could be pretty dumb, have no emotional continence at all, and still live a pretty happy life. As the waterline rises, the skills necessary to support yourself comfortably become higher and higher. — Scott Alexander | Burdens

When people ask me about my favorite article on basic income, I point to Burdens, a 2014 blog post from Slate Star Codex. Scott Alexander paints a compelling picture for why our expectation of people as workers fails to jibe with economic realities. People see themselves as failures because they are failing according to the norms of our culture.

There are ways to fix this. Social Security Disability Insurance isn’t one of them. It provides people with a small amount of spending money, but it also permanently brands them as failures. People need spending money. The Social Security Administration says, “OK. We’ll give you some spending money, but only if you promise never to work.” In exchange for life, people are asked to forego liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They are forbidden from contributing to society in many meaningful ways.

Another possible solution is the so-called Jobs Guarantee advocated by liberal progressive politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Under such a scheme, the government would make up work for people to do. It would lower Scott Alexander’s “employment waterline” and allow everyone to have a job as expected. Of course there is plenty of useful work for the government to hire people to do. But shouldn’t we want the government to use only as much labor as necessary? Anything beyond that would be wasting workers' time.

I’d be the last person to claim that basic income solves all the world’s problems. Importantly, basic income doesn’t promise everyone jobs. But it does solve the problem of how to get spending money to people. And it solves this problem without restricting those people’s individual freedoms.

Disability is the inability to do something that our culture normally expects of people. But if we expect people to reliably earn a living in an efficient labor market, then nearly every one of us is disabled. Perhaps our culture ought to readjust its expectations.