Sometimes I Think This Country Is Too Stupid To Survive

Here’s an example (this one is from Catherine Rampell of The Washington Post, with my comments in italics):

How much does President Biden’s proposed agenda cost?

This seems like a straightforward question, but the answer varies wildly depending on your accounting method. And this has caused headaches as Democrats try to lock in crucial . . . votes within their own party.

In recent years, there has been something of a budgeting double standard in the framing of Republican and Democratic economic proposals. Consider Republicans’ signature achievement during the T____ era, their 2017 tax cut. This bill was usually referred to as a “$1.5 trillion” tax cut because that was the initial estimate for its net cost over a decade.

A bill’s net cost refers to the price if you add up all the provisions that raise money, subtract all the provisions that lose money and then see how it all washes out. For the 2017 tax bill, the net result was forecast as a $1.5 trillion increase in deficits over a decade. (This was later revised upward, to nearly $2 trillion.)

If, however, we had counted only the law’s gross costs (i.e., without offsetting revenue-raisers, such as the cap on state and local tax deductions), its price tag would have looked multiple times more expensive.

But that’s exactly how most politicians and journalists are tallying the “cost” of Democrats’ safety-net-and-climate legislation.

As Republicans did in 2017, Democrats are trying to pass their legislation through “reconciliation,” a process that requires only a party-line vote. Most references to the Democrats’ package describe it as costing $3.5 trillion.

That number reflects the gross costs of Democrats’ agenda items, such as paid leave, health-care expansions, universal pre-K and child tax credits.

In other words, the $3.5 trillion headline refers to only one side of the ledger. However, Democrats plan to pay for at least some of these priorities with various offsets, such as higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Once you include the offsets, the net cost will be lower.

How much lower? That’s TBD. Democrats are still fighting over what will make it into the bill, including various tax hikes.

We know the maximum possible net cost, though. When a bill goes through reconciliation, lawmakers must commit in advance to a ceiling on how much the bill can raise deficits.

Last month, lawmakers agreed to a maximum deficit increase of about $1.75 trillion over a decade. They could ultimately choose a smaller number. The White House says it’s aiming for a fully paid-for bill — i.e., with a net cost of zero — though that outcome seems unlikely.

The $1.75 trillion maximum net cost has gotten almost no attention, while the $3.5 trillion gross figure dominates news coverage. This has irked White House officials, one of whom complained to me that “ ‘$3.5 trillion’ is disconnected from any kind of meaningful measure of what this developing legislation is,” since it doesn’t reflect the bill’s deficit impact or even the total size of its spending items. (The proposal cuts some taxes, too.)

And the framing matters because it has been distorting congressional negotiations.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) reportedly has drawn a red line for the bill’s “size” at no more than $1.5 trillion. If he were focusing on a net cost of up to $1.5 trillion, Democrats could cram a lot of priorities in the bill, so long as they also include substantial pay-fors. But Manchin has apparently anchored his demands around the bill’s gross costs [ignoring how the bill would be paid for!].

That severely constrains what programs Democrats can create or expand, no matter how enormous the offsets are.

How come Republicans got to use bookkeeping that made their legislation seem less costly, while Democrats are saddled with metrics that overstate their fiscal profligacy?

. . . [One explanation is that] some Democrats emphasize their agenda’s gross costs because they want to play up the scale of progressive ambitions. When comparing an agenda to the New Deal, it helps to make it sound larger. And recent polls suggest Democratic voters increasingly like the sound of Bigger Government.

So progressive leaders don’t guide the debate away from that $3.5 trillion gross figure, and reorient discussions toward (smaller) net costs, as White House officials might prefer; after Manchin’s downsizing demands, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) declared that $3.5 trillion is “the very least” the plan should cost [even though it wouldn’t cost that much!]. . . .

The Problem Is Facebook and Twitter Themselves

From The Washington Post:

Facebook said Saturday evening that an article raising concerns that the coronavirus vaccine could lead to death was the top performing link in the United States on its platform from January through March of this year, acknowledging the widespread reach of such material for the first time. It also said another site that pushed covid-19 misinformation was also among the top 20 most visited pages on the platform.

In related news, the German Marshall Fund issued a study of interactions on Facebook. The study found that sites that share news in misleading ways attracted a record-level percentage of Facebook users:

More than 1 in 5 interactions — such as shares, likes or comments — with U.S. sites from April to June happened on “outlets that gather and present information irresponsibly,” according to [the study].

This includes outlets such as the Daily Wire, TMZ, the Epoch Times and Breitbart that researchers say “distort or misrepresent information to make an argument or report on a subject,” a metric determined by NewsGuard, a website cited in the study that rates the credibility of news sources. Researchers say these sources, which they argue spread subtler but still harmful forms of misinformation, are decidedly different from sites that publish overtly false news.

“These are the kinds of sites that will cherry pick anecdotes and are giving rise to vaccine hesitancy and other kinds of conspiracy theories,” said [the study’s director].

Researchers highlighted articles that they say “disproportionately amplify vaccine-hesitant voices over experts” and “fail to mention risks of not being vaccinated against covid-19″ . . .

While platforms have cracked down on black-and-white cases of fiction masquerading as fact, they are still grappling with how to handle murky yet wide-reaching cases that stop short of falsehood. . . . 

The ratio of misleading content marks a five-year high for Facebook, where “false content producers” have received a higher share of engagement in the past, according to the findings (The Washington Post).

Unquote.

What should we do about a company like Facebook that seems hell-bent on spreading harmful misinformation? One answer is to prosecute Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk as dangers to public health.

However, Vinay Prasad, a professor at the University of California medical school, suggests a more measured approach: we should deal with social media companies the way we dealt with tobacco companies thirty years ago. From Medpage Today

Many Americans, and especially healthcare providers, are frustrated as we watch yet another rise in COVID-19 cases. Severely ill and hospitalized patients are often unvaccinated, which is particularly disheartening, given the widespread availability — surplus — of mRNA vaccines in the U.S. . . .

One potential reason why a sizable fraction of Americans are reluctant to be vaccinated is the widespread availability of inaccurate, unbalanced, or irrational rhetoric. This speech falls across a spectrum from overtly delusional — vaccines contain microchips so Bill Gates can track you — to lesser degrees of pejorative and doubtful comments. . . .

[But] regulating or policing medical misinformation is doomed. It’s easy for most (sensible) people to recognize that mRNA vaccines do not contain microchips that allow Bill Gates to track you. But very quickly we find statements about vaccines that are unknown, disputed, and worthy of further dialogue. Lines between legitimate debate and misinformation become scientifically impossible to draw. . . .

Even on a social media website for medical professionals that restricts who can comment and regulates comments, as Doximity does, there are a number of erroneous statements, mis-statements and ill-informed comments, suggesting that regulating speakers is not an effective solution either. Some doctors may say incorrect things, and some lay people may be spot on. Policing speakers can’t solve the content issue.

. . . It is easy to feel that some erroneous views should not be permitted on social media, but the hard part is to define what should not be allowed. Notably, despite the Surgeon General’s report and much debate on the issue, no one has actually delineated what counts as misinformation. I suspect that it cannot be done. No one can create a rule book that separates black and white because the world we live in is only gray. You can’t outlaw what you can’t define.

The problem is Facebook and Twitter themselves.

In 50 years, social media in 2021 will look like the tobacco industry in 1960 — they knowingly offered an addictive product, and, worse, hid the damage the addiction caused, while actively tried to deepen the dependency. Social media companies try to keep you using the platform longer, baiting you with content to trigger your rage, disgust, lust, or hatred. These companies offer products that have been linked to anxiety and depression among users. . . .
When it comes to information, social media does three things.

First, it drives people into irrational poles. On one side are folks who think SARS-CoV-2 is not real or just another seasonal flu. These individuals are often suspicious of vaccination as a path out of the pandemic. On the other side are folks who believe we should lock down until there isn’t a single case of COVID left. . . . The very nature of social media drives individuals into further extreme positions, possibly aided by bots, sock-puppet accounts, or foreign intelligence agencies. The middle ground is lost.

Second, a good or bad idea on these platforms can reach millions of individuals. An anecdote (of dubious validity) of a vaccinated individual suffering a bizarre harm, or one of an unvaccinated person begging for vaccination before the endotracheal tube is placed . . . are both powerful psychological stories that reach millions. This is heroin of the mind.

Third, social media causes deterioration of discourse and harsh proposals. . . . We no longer see individuals with whom we have policy disagreements as people.

The solution is inevitable. Social media of 2021 must be dismantled and crippled like the tobacco industry. These digital tools have hijacked our neurotransmitters, just like tobacco. Denying the pernicious role of these platforms on our society is similar to those who denied the harms of tobacco. Just like tobacco, social media offers pleasures. But, just like tobacco, the industry that supports it has pushed too far, lusting for profits and domination.

. . . Our leaders offer toothless solutions like policing or removing information they view as particularly egregious. This introduces countless problems and immense potential for abuse. . . .

Instead, the platforms need to be crushed, broken up, and regulated. Rather than just censoring specific ideas, measuring attention and trying to capture more of it must be prohibited. . . . The platforms must be brought to their knees, just like Big Tobacco, while human ideas — good, bad, sublime, horrible, true, false, and everything in – between must be free.

More on the Plot to Wreck America’s Elections

There is Big Money pushing the Big Lie. Charles Pierce of Esquire comments on a new report explaining how and why reactionaries with money are funding the attack on the 2020 election and elections to come: 

Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, indefatigable dark-money gumshoe, has made another major bust, this time in the area of The Big Lie and the lushly financed ratfcking infrastructure of the American right. She begins with the extended farce that is dragging on in Arizona, largely because it has been designed to drag on in Arizona, and elsewhere. She points to Patrick Byrne, the founder of Overstock.com, as one of the major sugar daddies behind this particular exercise in weaponized futility. But Mayer also emphasizes the fact that the entire conservative dark-money machine has been turned away from some of its traditional purposes and put behind a national effort not only to suppress the franchise, but also to delegitimize the electoral process itself. One engine supplies the power to the other.

Ralph Neas has been involved in voting-rights battles since the nineteen-eighties, when, as a Republican, he served as the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. He has overseen a study of the Arizona audit for the nonpartisan Century Foundation, and he told me that, though the audit is a “farce,” it may nonetheless have “extraordinary consequences.” He said, “The Maricopa County audit exposes exactly what the Big Lie is all about. If they come up with an analysis that discredits the 2020 election results in Arizona, it will be replicated in other states, furthering more chaos. That will enable new legislation. Millions of Americans could be disenfranchised, helping D____ T____ to be elected again in 2024. That’s the bottom line. Maricopa County is the prism through which to view everything. It’s not so much about 2020—it’s about 2022 and 2024. This is a coördinated national effort to distort not just what happened in 2020 but to regain the House of Representatives and the Presidency.”

And, it should be said, to perpetuate that control for the purposes of shoving more of the national wealth upward and keeping it there. Because, for all the high-falutin’ talk about conspiracy theories and democracy, this is now and always has been about establishing a permanent oligarchy and, if a kind of fascism comes along with it, well, bonus, right, folks?

Although the Arizona audit may appear to be the product of local extremists, it has been fed by sophisticated, well-funded national organizations whose boards of directors include some of the country’s wealthiest and highest-profile conservatives. Dark-money organizations, sustained by undisclosed donors, have relentlessly promoted the myth that American elections are rife with fraud, and, according to leaked records of their internal deliberations, they have drafted, supported, and in some cases taken credit for state laws that make it harder to vote.

For example, the Heritage Foundation is in on the game, according to Mayer and to Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who is bulldogging the money power in all our political institution. [Right-wing legal activist] Leonard Leo, not content with having warped the federal judiciary unto the generations, is now turning his dark arts to screwing with elections. But Mayer also follows the money back to its source, which happens to be in this case, the most usual of usual subjects.

These disparate nonprofits have one thing in common: they have all received funding from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Based in Milwaukee, the private, tax-exempt organization has become an extraordinary force in persuading mainstream Republicans to support radical challenges to election rules—a tactic once relegated to the far right. With an endowment of some eight hundred and fifty million dollars, the foundation funds a network of groups that have been stoking fear about election fraud, in some cases for years. Public records show that, since 2012, the foundation has spent some eighteen million dollars supporting eleven conservative groups involved in election issues.

I know people in Wisconsin who have spent their entire public careers fighting the poisonous influence of the Bradley Foundation, the reek of which prevails in almost all of the state’s major institutions—including, alas, my beloved alma mater. It was one of the major engines behind the rise of Congressman Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny-starver from Janesville, and behind Scott Walker, the goggle-eyed homunculus hired by Koch Industries to manage their midwest subsidiary once known as the state of Wisconsin, and behind Ron Johnson, the continuing blight of the United States Senate. So the Bradley Foundation has managed to damage the national government in so many different ways, including the promotion and election of woeful statewide candidates.

An animating force behind the Bradley Foundation’s war on “election fraud” is Cleta Mitchell, a fiercely partisan Republican election lawyer, who joined the organization’s board of directors in 2012. Until recently, she was virtually unknown to most Americans. But, on January 3rd, the Washington Post exposed the contents of a private phone call, recorded the previous day, during which Trump threatened election officials in Georgia with a “criminal offense” unless they could “find” 11,780 more votes for him—just enough to alter the results. Also on the call was Mitchell, who challenged the officials to provide records proving that dead people hadn’t cast votes. The call was widely criticized as a rogue effort to overturn the election, and Foley & Lardner, the Milwaukee-based law firm where Mitchell was a partner, announced that it was “concerned” about her role, and then parted ways with her. Trump’s call prompted the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, to begin a criminal investigation.

Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. Jane Mayer has found the taproot. It isn’t about Donald Trump, or about the My Pillow dumbass, or even the people who attacked the U.S. Capitol. It’s about the money, and who has it, and who wants to keep it, and, here’s a revelation, it’s probably not you.

Here are the closing words of the New Yorker article:

Polls show that, although the Arizona audit is wildly popular among Republican voters in the state, it alienates independents, who constitute approximately a third of the state’s electorate—and whose support is necessary for statewide candidates to win.

For now, though, conservative groups seem to be doubling down on their investments in election-fraud alarmism. In the next two years, Heritage Action plans to spend twenty-four million dollars mobilizing supporters and lobbyists who will promote “election integrity,” starting in eight battleground states, including Arizona. It is coördinating its effort with the Election Transparency Initiative, a joint venture of two anti-abortion groups, the Susan B. Anthony List and the American Principles Project. The Election Transparency Initiative has set a fund-raising goal of five million dollars. Cleta Mitchell, having left her law firm, has joined FreedomWorks, the free-market group, where she plans to lead a ten-million-dollar project on voting issues. She will also head the Election Integrity Network at the Conservative Partnership Institute, another Washington-based nonprofit. As a senior legal fellow there, she told the Washington Examiner, she will “help bring all these strings” of conservative election-law activism together, and she added, “I’ve had my finger in so many different pieces of the election-integrity pie for so long.”

Back in Arizona, where the auditors are demanding still more time, [Republican member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors] Bill Gates believes that the Big Lie has become a “grift” used to motivate Republican voters and donors to support conservative candidates and political groups. “The sad thing is that there are probably millions of people—hardworking, good Americans, maybe retired—who have paid their taxes, always followed the law, and they truly believe this, because of what they’ve been fed by their leaders,” he said. “And what’s so dispiriting is that the people who are pushing it from the top? They know better.” 

The Data Priests

On June 15, Matthew Crawford of The New Atlantis testified at a hearing on smart home technology held by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy & Consumer Rights. This is from his opening statement:

I have no expertise in antitrust. I come to you as a student of the history of political thought.

The convenience of the smart home may be worth the price; that’s for each of us to decide. But to do so with open eyes, one has to understand what the price is. After all, you don’t pay a monthly fee for Alexa, or Google Assistant.

The Sleep Number bed is typical of smart home devices, as Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff describes in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. It comes with an app, of course, which you’ll need to install to get the full benefits. Benefits for whom? Well, to know that you would need to spend some time with the sixteen-page privacy policy that comes with the bed. There you’ll read about third-party sharing, analytics partners, targeted advertising, and much else.

Meanwhile, the user agreement specifies that the company can share or exploit your personal information even “after you deactivate or cancel” your Sleep Number account. You are unilaterally informed that the firm does not honor “Do Not Track” notifications. By the way, its privacy policy once stated that the bed would also transmit “audio in your room.” (I am not making this up.)

The business rationale for the smart home is to bring the intimate patterns of life into the fold of the surveillance economy, which has a one-way mirror quality. Increasingly, every aspect of our lives — our voices, our facial expressions, our political affiliations and intellectual predilections — are laid bare as data to be collected by companies who, for their own part, guard with military-grade secrecy the algorithms by which they use this information to determine the world that is presented to us, for example when we enter a search term, or in our news feeds. They are also in a position to determine our standing in the reputational economy. The credit rating agencies and insurance companies would like to know us more intimately; I suppose Alexa can help with that.

Allow me to offer a point of reference that comes from outside the tech debates, but can be brought to bear on them. Conservative legal scholars have long criticized a shift of power from Congress to the administrative state, which seeks to bypass legislation and rule by executive fiat, through administrative rulings. The appeal of this move is that it saves one the effort of persuading others, that is, the inconvenience of democratic politics.

All of the arguments that conservatives make about the administrative state apply as well to this new thing, call it algorithmic governance, that operates through artificial intelligence developed in the private sector. It too is a form of power that is not required to give an account of itself, and is therefore insulated from democratic pressures.

In machine learning, an array of variables are fed into deeply layered “neural nets” that simulate the binary, fire/don’t-fire synaptic connections of an animal brain. Vast amounts of data are used in a massively iterated (and, in some versions, unsupervised) training regimen. Because the strength of connections between logical nodes is highly plastic, just like neural pathways, the machine gets trained by trial and error and is able to arrive at something resembling knowledge of the world. The logic by which an AI reaches its conclusions is impossible to reconstruct even for those who built the underlying algorithms. We need to consider the significance of this in the light of our political traditions.

When a court issues a decision, the judge writes an opinion in which he explains his reasoning. He grounds the decision in law, precedent, common sense, and principles that he feels obliged to articulate and defend. This is what transforms the decision from mere fiat into something that is politically legitimate, capable of securing the assent of a free people. It makes the difference between simple power and authority. One distinguishing feature of a modern, liberal society is that authority is supposed to have this rational quality to it — rather than appealing to, say, a special talent for priestly divination. This is our Enlightenment inheritance. It appears to be in a fragile state. With the inscrutable arcana of data science, a new priesthood peers into a hidden layer of reality that is revealed only by a self-taught AI program — the logic of which is beyond human knowing.

The feeling that one is ruled by a class of experts who cannot be addressed, who cannot be held to account, has surely contributed to populist anger. From the perspective of ordinary citizens, the usual distinction between government and “the private sector” starts to sound like a joke, given how the tech firms order our lives in far-reaching ways.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon have established portals that people feel they have to pass through to conduct the business of life, and to participate in the common life of the nation. Such bottlenecks are a natural consequence of “the network effect.” It was early innovations that allowed these firms to take up their positions. But it is not innovation that accounts for the unprecedented rents they are able to collect, it is these established positions, and the ongoing control of the data it allows them to gather, as in a classic infrastructure monopoly. If those profits measure anything at all, it is the reach of a grid of surveillance that continues to spread and deepen. It is this grid’s basic lack of intelligibility that renders it politically unaccountable. Yet accountability is the very essence of representative government.

Mr. Zuckerberg has said frankly that “In a lot of ways Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company.” If we take the man at his word, it would seem to raise the question: Can the United States government tolerate the existence of a rival government within its territory?

In 1776, we answered that question with a resounding “No!” and then fought a revolutionary war to make it so. The slogan of that war was “Don’t tread on me.” This spirited insistence on self-rule expresses the psychic core of republicanism. As Senator Klobuchar points out in her book Antitrust, the slogan was directed in particular at the British Crown’s grant of monopoly charters to corporations that controlled trade with the colonies. Today, the platform firms appear to many as an imperial power. The fundamental question “Who rules?” is pressed upon this body once again.

How Poverty Helps the Rest of Us

Ezra Klein of The New York Times writes about poverty and the American economy:

I’m not going to pretend that I know how to interpret the jobs and inflation data of the past few months. My view is that this is still an economy warped by the pandemic, and that the dynamics are so strange and so unstable that it will be some time before we know its true state. But the reaction to the early numbers and anecdotes has revealed something deeper and more constant in our politics.

The American economy runs on poverty, or at least the constant threat of it. Americans like their goods cheap and their services plentiful and the two of them, together, require a sprawling labor force willing to work tough jobs at crummy wages. On the right, the barest glimmer of worker power is treated as a policy emergency, and the whip of poverty, not the lure of higher wages, is the appropriate response.

Reports that low-wage employers were having trouble filling open jobs sent Republican policymakers into a tizzy and led at least 25 Republican governors — and one Democratic governor [the one in Louisiana] — to announce plans to cut off expanded unemployment benefits early. Chipotle said that it would increase prices by about 4 percent to cover the cost of higher wages, prompting the National Republican Congressional Committee to issue a blistering response: “Democrats’ socialist stimulus bill caused a labor shortage, and now burrito lovers everywhere are footing the bill.” The [right-wing] outlet The Federalist  complained, “Restaurants have had to bribe current and prospective workers with fatter paychecks to lure them off their backsides and back to work.”

But it’s not just the right. The financial press, the cable news squawkers and even many on the center-left greet news of labor shortages and price increases with an alarm they rarely bring to the ongoing agonies of poverty or low-wage toil.

As it happened, just as I was watching Republican governors try to immiserate low-wage workers who weren’t yet jumping at the chance to return to poorly ventilated kitchens for $9 an hour, I was sent “A Guaranteed Income for the 21st Century,” a plan that seeks to make poverty a thing of the past. The proposal, developed . . .  for the New School’s Institute on Race and Political Economy, would guarantee a $12,500 annual income for every adult and a $4,500 allowance for every child. It’s what wonks call a “negative income tax” plan — unlike a universal basic income, it phases out as households rise into the middle class.

“With poverty, to address it, you just eliminate it,” [one of the authors, Darrick Hamilton] told me. “You give people enough resources so they’re not poor.” Simple, but not cheap. The team estimates that its proposal would cost $876 billion annually. To give a sense of scale, total federal spending in 2019 was about $4.4 trillion, with $1 trillion of that financing Social Security payments and another $1.1 trillion support Medicaid, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Beyond writing that the plan “would require new sources of revenue, additional borrowing or trade-offs with other government funding priorities,” [the authors] don’t say how they’d pay for it, [but] it’s clearly possible. Even if the entire thing was funded by taxes, it would only bring America’s tax burden to roughly the average of our peer nations.

I suspect the real political problem for a guaranteed income isn’t the costs, but the benefits. A policy like this would give workers the power to make real choices. They could say no to a job they didn’t want, or quit one that exploited them. They could, and would, demand better wages, or take time off to attend school or simply to rest. When we spoke, Hamilton tried to sell it to me as a truer form of capitalism. “People can’t reap the returns of their effort without some baseline level of resources,” he said. “If you lack basic necessities with regards to economic well-being, you have no agency. You’re dictated to by others or live in a miserable state.”

But those in the economy with the power to do the dictating profit from the desperation of low-wage workers. One man’s misery is another man’s quick and affordable at-home lunch delivery. “It is a fact that when we pay workers less and don’t have social insurance programs that, say, cover Uber and Lyft drivers, we are able to consume goods and services at lower prices,” Hilary Hoynes, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley . . . 

This is the conversation about poverty that we don’t like to have: We discuss the poor as a pity or a blight, but we rarely admit that America’s high rate of poverty is a policy choice, and there are reasons we choose it over and over again. We typically frame those reasons as questions of fairness (“Why should I have to pay for someone else’s laziness?”) or tough-minded paternalism (“Work is good for people, and if they can live on the dole, they would”). But there’s more to it than that.

It is true, of course, that some might use a guaranteed income to play video games or melt into Netflix. But why are they the center of this conversation? We know full well that America is full of hardworking people who are kept poor by very low wages and harsh circumstance. We know many who want a job can’t find one, and many of the jobs people can find are cruel in ways that would appall anyone sitting comfortably behind a desk. We know the absence of child care and affordable housing and decent public transit makes work, to say nothing of advancement, impossible for many. We know people lose jobs they value because of mental illness or physical disability or other factors beyond their control. We are not so naïve as to believe near-poverty and joblessness to be a comfortable condition or an attractive choice.

Most Americans don’t think of themselves as benefiting from the poverty of others, and I don’t think objections to a guaranteed income would manifest as arguments in favor of impoverishment. Instead, we would see much of what we’re seeing now, only magnified: Fears of inflation, lectures about how the government is subsidizing indolence, paeans to the character-building qualities of low-wage labor, worries that the economy will be strangled by taxes or deficits, anger that Uber and Lyft rides have gotten more expensive, sympathy for the struggling employers who can’t fill open roles rather than for the workers who had good reason not to take those jobs. These would reflect not America’s love of poverty but opposition to the inconveniences that would accompany its elimination.

Nor would these costs be merely imagined. Inflation would be a real risk, as prices often rise when wages rise, and some small businesses would shutter if they had to pay their workers more. There are services many of us enjoy now that would become rarer or costlier if workers had more bargaining power. We’d see more investments in automation and possibly in outsourcing. The truth of our politics lies in the risks we refuse to accept, and it is rising worker power, not continued poverty, that we treat as intolerable. You can see it happening right now, driven by policies far smaller and with effects far more modest than a guaranteed income.

Hamilton, to his credit, was honest about these trade-offs. “Progressives don’t like to talk about this,” he told me. “They want this kumbaya moment. They want to say equity is great for everyone when it’s not. We need to shift our values. The capitalist class stands to lose from this policy, that’s unambiguous. They will have better resourced workers they can’t exploit through wages. Their consumer products and services would be more expensive.”

For the most part, America finds the money to pay for the things it values. In recent decades, and despite deep gridlock in Washington, we have spent trillions of dollars on wars in the Middle East and tax cuts for the wealthy. We have also spent trillions of dollars on health insurance subsidies and coronavirus relief. It is in our power to wipe out poverty. It simply isn’t among our priorities.

“Ultimately, it’s about us as a society saying these privileges and luxuries and comforts that folks in the middle class — or however we describe these economic classes — have, how much are they worth to us?” Jamila Michener, co-director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity, told me. “And are they worth certain levels of deprivation or suffering or even just inequality among people who are living often very different lives from us? That’s a question we often don’t even ask ourselves” . . .