Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame is touting the idea of a “universal basic income”, the notion that every citizen should be paid some fixed subsistence on an annual basis, and he has been joined in this thinking, for various reasons, by Tesla CEO Elon Musk and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. In commenting on this goofy idea, Andy Kessler quipped, “If we get universal basic income, the millennials will never leave our basements”.
I have a better idea that might help achieve the same result and it came from Vernon Smith, the 2002 Nobel Laureate in Economics from Chapman University. He thinks that President Trump should advance a proposal to privatize the interstate highway system by holding a series of auctions, the proceeds of which could provide a permanent basic income for every citizen through a Permanent Citizens Fund much like the oil trust in Alaska does for citizens of that state. (Or even better, how about national debt reduction?) He even suggests broadening the asset sale to include the Bureau of Land Management’s vast grazing lands and eventually oil and gas resource rights. This parallels some thinking I have had; after all, the federal government owns over 50% of the land west of the Mississippi River excluding Texas. Neither Smith nor I would include the national parks and monuments or forests, but the private sector would be a much more productive manager of these valuable resources than government and better stewards for the true owners, the American people.
Such a proposal would have the added benefit of rolling back the Progressive Era thinking of the early 20th century, which favors large-scale ownership of natural resources under management by experts in federal bureaus, and which was itself a reversal of the previously dominant classical liberal ideas that produced the successful privatization through dispersal of federal lands via the Homestead Acts.
You’re probably thinking that this is either a very bad idea or a fantasy that couldn’t get ten votes in Congress, but I think it’s time we had this conversation. Is there any other way that we are seriously going to begin to retire any significant portion of over $20 trillion in national debt?