It's Time We Get to Cash in as Equity Owners of Our Common Wealth
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A cushion of reliable income is a wonderful thing. It can help pay for basic necessities. It can be saved for rainy days or used to pursue happiness on sunny days. It can encourage people to take entrepreneurial risks, care for friends, or volunteer for community service.
Conversely, the absence of reliable income is a terrible thing. It heightens anxiety and fear. It diminishes our ability to cope with crises and transitions. It traps many families on the knife’s edge of poverty, and makes it harder for poor people to rise.
There’s been much discussion of late about how to save America’s declining middle class. The answer politicians of both parties give is always the same: jobs, jobs, jobs. The parties differ on how the jobs will be created — Republicans say the market will do it if we cut taxes and regulation. Democrats say government can help by investing in infra¬structure and education. Either way, it still comes down to jobs with decent wages and benefits.
It’s understandable that politicians say this: it was America’s experience in the past. In the years following World War II, we built a solid middle class on the foundation of high-paying, mostly unionized jobs in the manufacturing sector. But those days are history. Today, automation and computers have eliminated millions of jobs, and private-sector unions have been crushed. On top of that, in a globalized economy where capital can hire the cheapest labor anywhere, it’s no longer credible to believe that America’s middle class can prosper from labor income alone.
So why don’t we pay everyone some non-labor income — you know, the kind of money that flows disproportionally to the rich? I’m not talking about redistribution here, I’m talking about paying dividends to equity owners in good old capitalist fashion. Except that the equity owners in question aren’t owners of private wealth, they’re owners of common wealth. Which is to say, all of us.
One state—Alaska—already does this. The Alaska Permanent Fund uses revenue from state oil leases to invest in stocks, bonds and similar assets, and from those investments pays equal dividends to every resident. Since 1980, these dividends have ranged from $1,000 to $2,000 per year per person, including children (meaning that they’ve reached up to $8,000 per year for households of four). It’s therefore no accident that, compared to other states, Alaska has the third highest median income and the second highest income equality.
Alaska’s model can be extended to any state or nation, whether or not they have oil. Imagine an American Permanent Fund that pays dividends to all Americans, one person, one share. A major source of revenue could be clean air, nature’s gift to us all. Polluters have been freely dumping ever-increasing amounts of gunk into our air, contributing to ill-health, acid rain and climate change. But what if we required polluters to bid for and pay for permits to pollute our air, and decreased the number of permits every year? Pollution would decrease, and as it did, pollution prices would rise. Less pollution would yield more revenue. Over time, trillions of dollars would be available for dividends.
And that’s not the only common resource an American Permanent Fund could tap. Consider the substantial contribution society makes to publicly traded stock values. When a company like Facebook or Google goes public, its value rises dramatically. The extra value derives from the vastly enlarged market of investors who can trust a public company’s financial statements (filed quarterly with the Securities and Exchange Commission) and buy or sell its shares with the click of a mouse. Experts call this a ‘liquidity premium,’ and it’s generated not by the company but by society.