Family values through free cash

Many people (particularly women) do socially valuable jobs – Universal Basic In-come would pay them for it.

Sitting at No. 7 on Billboard magazine’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart this week is a hokey and sentimental little number called “Mr. Mom,” from the group Lonestar.

Anyone who is interested in reaching “red staters” and revitalizing the left ought to take a listen.

“Mr. Mom” tells the story of a regular guy who loses his job and takes over the homemaking and child-rearing activities while his wife goes to work. Naturally, hilarity ensues: “There’s bubble gum in the baby’s hair/ Sweet potatoes in my lazy chair.” By the song’s end, our narrator realizes he’s been a little too cavalier about jobs traditionally done by women: “Baby, now I know how you feel/ What I don’t know is how you do it.”

What can we learn from this dumb little ditty? A lot, although two particular points stick out: First, “red staters” recognize there is high social value in unpaid labor (homemaking, coaching your child’s baseball team, generic volunteer work, etc.). Second, “red staters” love to spend quality time with their children – in fact, it’s probably their cardinal value.

None of this is particularly revelatory. What I find interesting about “Mr. Mom” (and just about all popular contemporary country songs) is an implicit rejection of the constantly changing, hypercompetitive U.S. economy – one fueled by irrational consumerism and characterized by instability for regular people.

When you listen to country music radio stations, such 102.1 FM in the Twin Cities (as I urged readers to do back in August), some of the overarching themes you’ll notice are the joys of leisure, romance and hell raisin’ rebelliousness, the importance of friends and family and the value of social solidarity.

What this suggests is that “radical” ideas – correctly packaged and effectively communicated – could potentially seem very appealing to “red staters.”

Take Universal Basic Income: The proposal that every person in the United States (from Bill Gates to the homeless guys begging for change outside the liquor store) should receive an unconditional income – regardless of whether he or she works. What kind of person would buy into a crazy idea like this? The kind of person who can relate to a song like “Mr. Mom,” that’s who – and a lot of academics (as you’ll see if you visit the United States Basic Income, Group’s Web site at www.usbig.net.)

First of all, there is no question that with a Universal Basic Income some people are going to be freeloaders – there wouldn’t be any type of restriction on what you could spend your Universal Basic Income money on. So theoretically, if one wanted to spend his life sitting around and smoking pot all day, he or she could.

But how many people are genuine freeloaders? Like we learn in “Mr. Mom,” lots of people (particularly women) do socially valuable jobs for free – having a Universal Basic Income would compensate these people and make it easier for them to continue on with the good work they’re doing.

Universal Basic Income isn’t just a windfall for housewives either – it makes life easier on creative folks such as artists, musicians, writers and actors, who often have difficulty supporting themselves doing what they actually want to be doing. And besides, the Universal Basic Income would be set at a low enough rate so that people who wanted a more comfortable lifestyle would have to work for it.

Second, the program would give people more leisure time. We are among the most overworked people in the industrialized world. If everyone had an unconditional guaranteed income, they wouldn’t have to work nearly as much. People would still work to supplement their Universal Basic Income and, obviously, it couldn’t be so high that no one would have an incentive to work income-generating jobs. But almost everyone would have a lot more quality time to spend time with family and friends. How’s that for family values?

Third, with a Universal Basic Income, there’d be massive pressure on employers to make their employees’ lives easier. If everyone can fall back on their Universal Basic Income, they’re going to be pretty selective about what kinds of jobs they take. So, instead of having workers compete against one another for mediocre or lousy jobs, employers will have to compete with one another to offer the most appealing jobs they can. People who do inherently tough jobs such as garbage collecting and sewage treatment would have to be paid well – probably really well.

The reason everyone – even billionaires – would get a Universal Basic Income is because it would be an entitlement guaranteed to all. Universal entitlements such as Social Security have always been extremely popular policies (which is why conservatives hate them so much). If you only gave a Universal Basic Income to people who made little (or no) money, it would be too easy to stigmatize Universal Basic Income recipients the way welfare recipients get attacked today.

How would all this be financed? Well, you’d have to increase a number of taxes – particularly the income tax. This is easy to do with the right level of political will – one that I think you could achieve once liberals and “red staters” realize the family-friendly benefits.

The biggest challenge to establishing a Universal Basic Income is the “freeloader” objection (one that, admittedly, is going to resonate with a lot of people) – but the benefits of a Universal Basic Income far outweigh the disadvantages. I think the average person listening to “Mr. Mom” would agree.

Nick Woomer welcomes comments at [email protected]