Nota bene: Chris Hughes's statistics

My review of Chris Hughes’s new book, Fair Shot, is up online and will be coming out in the print NYTBR soon. (Possibly this weekend, I’m not sure.) Hughes, of course, is the Facebook billionaire who briefly owned The New Republic and who is now pushing a kind of Universal Basic Income lite.

Hughes’s people didn’t like this bit of the review:

Hughes’s proposal — which he himself describes as a “prosaic and incremental” expansion of the earned-income tax credit — is emphatically not a universal basic income. For one thing, it targets only the bottom 35 percent or so of earners in the country. Worse, it doesn’t even reach all of them. The Hughes plan is restricted to working Americans: people who made more than $6,000 last year, who are looking after dependents under the age of 6 or over the age of 70, or who are enrolled in an accredited college. If you earned less than $6,000, you’ll receive only your previous year’s earnings — and if those earnings were zero, you’ll receive zero. Those who live at the very bottom of the income spectrum would have to continue to rely on America’s overstretched social safety net, which, in all too many cases, pays them little or nothing.

As far as they’re concerned, I’m looking at a glass-half-full situation and describing it as glass-half-empty. They see me as minimizing just how many non-working people would benefit from Hughes's plan: I should, in their minds, be celebrating the fact that “the expansion would in fact include nearly 30 million people anew who are not included today”.

But really this is, in my mind, the great weakness of Hughes’s plan. He’s very keen that his guaranteed income go only to working Americans, for reasons that he never really spells out. And then he includes a substantial group of non-earners by saying that, well, they might not be earning, but they’re still working in the new economy: “a parent who stays at home today, takes care of young children, cooks, cleans and run errands is no less productive than a factory worker or an entrepreneur”. That, in turn, allows him to include such a person in his guaranteed-income scheme.

I don’t entirely understand what definition of productivity Hughes is using here, but let’s put that to one side: the point of contention comes when he says that “30 million Americans participate in this unrecognized workforce”.

Follow his footnotes to find out where the 30 million number came from, and you’ll end up at this blog post from the BLS. But here’s the thing: The minute you look at the actual data, you realize that the 30 million number does not refer to the extra number of people who would be included as working under Hughes’s plan.

The BLS post breaks down the 87.4 million people 16 years and older who neither worked nor looked for work at any time during the 2014. The “16 years and older” bit is the first giveaway that something fishy is going on here: it turns out that 10.8 million of the total are between 16 and 19, and the overwhelming majority of them say, quite reasonably, that they didn’t work because they were going to school. The way Hughes presents his 30 million figure, he would have you believe that those 10 million students would all get added to his list of working Americans, and thus be eligible for his guaranteed income. But of course that’s not true: half of them, roughly, are under the age of 18, and if you’re not an adult you don’t get the income.

Similarly, if you ask those 87.4 million people why they’re not working, 13.5 million will answer with “home responsibilities”. That answer then allows Hughes to include all 13.5 million in his 30 million figure. But simply having home responsibilities isn’t enough: under Hughes’s plan, you need to have an actual dependent at home, under the age of 6 or over the age of 70. Some of those 13.5 million people surely do. But many others don’t.

On top of that, some unknown proportion of Hughes’s 30 million people will have a household income above $50,000: most Americans do, after all. And the minute your household income hits $50,000, Hughes doesn’t want to give you any guaranteed income at all.

All of which is to say: Watch out for Hughes, or anybody else, suggesting that his plan would give $500 per month to 30 million caregivers and students. The true number is surely much, much lower than that.