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Hillary Clinton Didn’t Propose Universal Basic Income Because Centrists Won’t Fix the Future

In 'What Happened,' Clinton says she considered a universal basic income, but "couldn't make the numbers work."

Jordan Pearson

Jordan Pearson

Image: Shutterstock

Hillary Clinton recently sat down with Vox's Ezra Klein to talk about what she "really thinks" nearly a year after she handily lost an election that was hers to win. The interview, which went online on Wednesday, is by turns surprising and utterly moribund.

Clinton discusses how prior to her electoral run she considered supporting policies that would make the Left salivate: a basic income for all, paid out of the pockets of the extractive industry, and single-payer healthcare. Yet in the same breath she dismisses these ideas out-of-hand, as if they never could have worked. This is the hard limit of establishment liberal politics, and her unflagging dedication to a broken system is one of the biggest reasons why Americans have tired of politics as usual.

Of a basic income, based on the Alaska model that pays out dividends from the state's oil industry to citizens, Clinton wrote in her new book that achieving this would mean raising taxes or scrapping essential social services. Ditching the idea was the "responsible decision." This is, frankly, bullshit. The Alaska model is funded by oil revenues (as well as investments in stocks and bonds), not income taxes. To extend it to the rest of the country wouldn't mean raising taxes or scrapping social services but expropriating revenues from an industry that ravages what is supposed to be a shared natural resource. And even if a basic income were funded through taxes, who might bear the brunt? Perhaps the mega-rich who hoard billions of dollars in foreign banks, far out of reach from the American people?

A politician with a larger imagination would perhaps see these opportunities and latch onto them. But not Clinton. Instead, she worries about having to explain to her enemies how she would achieve these goals and not having a good answer, because the answers are forever out of reach for her politics. Rather than grappling effectively with the biggest issues threatening our future: namely income inequality, climate change, automation-related job loss, and the health of our population, Clinton decided to work within a system that offers only patchwork solutions to a limited number of people.

Of single-payer healthcare, which has now been proposed by Bernie Sanders and 15 other senators, Clinton says that she supports it, at least in the abstract. According to her, though, the question of "who's going to pay for it?" made it a political impossibility during her candidacy. The way Clinton tells it, Sanders can't explain how to pay for it, and nobody can. At least, not without raising taxes on average Joe and Jane. But Sanders does have answers and explanations, and he released them publicly this week. The answers he proposes are: Tax high-earners, tax offshore wealth, close loopholes for corporations, tax capital gains, tax the finance industry, etc.

These revenue streams are out of reach for politicians like Clinton and other centrist Democrats who are terrified of upsetting an economic order that created the largest income inequality gap in American history. Even more, she dismisses single-payer healthcare and stronger environmental protections as simply being "whatever it is that might be viewed as universal and inspiring." But the environment, people's health, and their quality of life are not abstractions. Making them better is possible.

Centrist politicians, of whom Clinton is emblematic, can't see the bright point of light at the end of our very long and dark political tunnel. They like being neither here nor there, in the half-light of justice deferred, comfortably "between center right and center left," as Clinton put it, wherever the center of a center is supposed to be. Nowhere, I suppose.