Michael Tubbs

Universal Basic Equity

Air Date: November 15, 2021

Economic advisor to Gov. Newsom (D-CA) and former Mayor of Stockton Michael Tubbs discusses how to restore economic fairness.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Our guest today is Michael Tubbs. He’s currently serving as a special advisor for economic mobility and opportunity to Governor Gavin Newsom of California. And he’s the former mayor of Stockton, California. Welcome Mr. Mayor. Thank you so much for joining me today.


TUBBS: Thank you so much for having me.


HEFFNER: Let me ask you to begin with, as you reflect on your tenure and consider this new opportunity to advise the governor of the largest economy in this country, what is most on your mind in terms of how we can adopt policies that are going to advance economic mobility right now?


TUBBS: What’s front and center for me and has been as a consistent through line from my time as council member and mayor and now there’s this idea that poverty is such a terrible choice we make. So my role with the governor and with community organizations, we are going to launch an effort called Ending Poverty in California, where we’ll be laser-focused on raising the issue. The fact that California is the Golden State, a state that espouses progressive egalitarian values, but yet has the highest poverty rate in the country. And that’s not to point fingers and blame anyone. I think we’re all culpable. And I look forward to working with the governor and the state to really raise the issue of poverty as an important moral question, and put together to your point, policies, pilots and the ideas to really end poverty, because we have the resources to do it. We just have to marshal the will.


HEFFNER: And you attempted to marshal that will and you know, it was not even an attempt, you endeavored to change the status quo. And that’s something that took political courage and capital when you were mayor. How do you assess, you know, your most recent re-election, reflecting on it, and I know you also have a memoir out “The Deeper the Roots: A Memoir of Hope and Home” which I want you to expound on. But now that you’ve had some time between that most recent political campaign and where we are today, I just wonder if you identify it at all as a referendum on Universal Basic Income? What were the dynamics that you think contributed to the political sentiment in your community during the course of this past campaign?


TUBBS: That’s book number two (laughs). I don’t view it as a referendum on Universal Basic Income, particularly because since then we now have 60 mayors across the country who are part of a group I started called Mayors for Guaranteed Income. We have two dozen pilots being run by said mayors including the mayor of Los Angeles, the mayor of Atlanta, the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, the mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, et cetera, the mayor of Oakland, California. And we also have money in the state budget, $35 million dollars in the state of California’s budget for guaranteed income programs and had conversations with lawmakers as far as New Mexico, who are trying to set ups in their state. So I don’t think it was a referendum on basic income, but I do think it is a sort of testament to the fact that progress comes at a price, because it wasn’t just basic income we did in Stockton. We reformed policing. We led the state in the decline of officer involved shootings. We were doing things to make sure bad cops were held accountable. We reduced homicides by 40 percent, not by locking people up, by providing opportunity. And all this was being done by this 26-year-old black mayor, the youngest mayor ever in this country, but also the first black mayor in the city. So I think with that came a lot of attention and praise, but also the status quo has a lot of friends. So a lot of like enemies, a lot of people who are angry, a lot of people who were upset that kids were getting scholarships. A lot of people upset that the city went from bankruptcy to second most fiscally healthy city. So, and I talk about this in the memoir “The Deeper the Roots” but a blind spot for me was I thought the work was enough.


I thought people could see that change is slow, that we started out, baseline was rock bottom so it’s going to take some time to get to the top, but we were making phenomenal progress.


And while I was working and talking to traditional media outlets, there was a four-year disinformation campaign from bad actors who were used to running things in the city, who were used to having access to contracts, who were used to setting the agenda. And I just really just underestimated the fact that everyone’s not going to be happy with bringing change. So in the book, I talk a lot about that. I talk a lot about how purpose is a taxing position. I’m really even moreso glad with the way I lead, because I would have been terrible to have been timid. What if I’ve been scared to do basic income, because people would be upset and then still ended up losing reelection, right? So I’m happy for the way we lead and I’m happy for the legacy we left and I’m looking forward to sort of what’s next for me.


HEFFNER: What personal experiences that you chronicle in your book were most helpful or informative when crafting those policies when you were mayor?


TUBBS: Yeah. Well, in “The Deeper the Roots” I talk a lot about growing up with a single mother and my aunt and grandmother who are all phenomenal, all pretty young and none were rich. And in fact, my mom, we lived in poverty for the majority of my childhood. And I think from them I learned that all the tropes we have about people without money aren’t true. I never saw my mom mismanage money. I just realized she didn’t have a lot of money to manage. That she was always behind because she had to go to the check cashing place, because she was paid on the 15th, but bills were due on the seventh, right. And things of that sort. And I think experiences like that gave me the courage to say, let’s do a basic income because it’s not about trusting those people. Those people are my people. And I know that they’re not lazy.


I know that they’re not waiting for government to save them. And I know they’re in this. I knew they were going to spend money in the way I spend money because we’re all people. I think sort of the murder of my cousin, which I talk about, Donnell James, which I talk about in “The Deeper the Roots” really informed the work we did around reducing gun violence. Because I think oftentimes when you’ve lost someone to gun violence, it’s hard to summon the compassion for folks who are likely to be perpetrators of gun crimes. But if you look at the data, the data tells us that people who shoot have also been shot. That victims and perpetrators are often one and the same. And I think I started as being so frustrated and hurt by the murder of my cousin made me very clear-eyed about the need to do something about the fact that the leading cause of death for young black and Latino men, not just in Stockton, but in these United States, isn’t car accidents, it’s literally gun violence and homicides.


And I think sort of that experience gave me empathy in terms of how upset one is when someone loses a family member to gun violence. I think that allowed me to summon the courage to say, hey, let’s identify the guys who are still on our streets, who we know have a propensity for gun violence and give them an opportunity, give them extra resources, give them extra support, despite the fact that that wasn’t necessarily the most politically popular position to take, particularly in 2018. And then I would say, having a father who’s incarcerated, which I talk about a lot in “The Deeper the Roots” also sort of informed my view just on government. The idea that government at its best should keep families together. And also, I think it really had me change my thinking from being all about pulling myself up by the bootstraps and agency, agency, agency, to realizing that choices matter. But so do policy choices and we have to create the ecosystems by which people make good choices. So it was really those three experiences. My father being incarcerated, being raised by three phenomenal women, and my cousin being murdered that led me even to think about being in government. It really informed some of the work we did in Stockton and then the work we continue to do.


HEFFNER: That’s really useful to understand. Our viewers will remember that we hosted over the past several years, mayors from around the country. Mayor Buttigieg, when he was still mayor, Nan Whaley, before she was running for senate and governor, Mayor Fetterman now running for senate. I know you share some policy convictions and values with the aforementioned individuals. When you were mayor, how much of those issues that you talk about: the public policy issues that permeate a Stockton could be related to a South Bend or a Braddock, Pennsylvania or a Dayton, Ohio, in an issue like the poverty to prison pipeline, even in places as disparate as those did you recognize those as common crises with some common solutions warranted?


TUBBS: A hundred percent. And poverty is the pre-existing pandemic even before COVID 19, in my opinion. And going back to your earlier question, I also think that’s why we were a target of literally a four-year long misinformation campaign, and it wasn’t just Stockton money. It was outside money who saw that folks were emulating Stockton and who saw the other mayors were trying basic income, who saw that other mayors were trying alternatives to police. And I think sort of the threat of that, because I mean, poverty is big business. There’s business interests that need prisons to exist, that need people to be incarcerated, that sadly need people to be murdered, that need people to be hungry and people to be poor. I think so when you’re showing a way forward that as a particular, as a political leader, that gives other people the courage and imagination to do so. So that’s what made me most excited about Stockton honestly, was I felt, and I still do, its ground zero for every issue and opportunity in our society. And we were beginning to see what happens when you invest directly in people.


HEFFNER: Was that the most common link that you identify the prison industrial complex profiteering off of incarceration and those trapped in the parole and probation system as well, if you were to point to something that was that common link that you said dealing with the privatization of prisons in Stockton, South Bend, Dayton, Braddock, that isn’t, you know, an equally potent area to, to that needs to be grappled with or, or is it something else?


TUBBS: No, I think that and I’m a broken record and I, my friends and family will tell you, I’ve been saying this sine I was like 15 years old. I think it’s poverty. I think poverty is the root cause for all these other things, because they got folks who are incarcerated, the vast majority of them come from communities without means, the vast majority of them are born in families in poverty. When you look at sort of violence and murders and homicides…


HEFFNER: And, and your, and your estimation poverty is a consequence at least partially of that greed or at least of something like the privatization of the prison system?


TUBBS: Yeah. I think poverty sets the conditions for that greed to find a home. And I think without sort of poverty, you would see less of an industry around like people aren’t going to build jails if people aren’t going to jail. So people aren’t going to trade on private jails on the stock market if no one’s in jail. I think sort of poverty has created conditions that allow people to think about, okay, how do we profit off this, this function? And I just think that’s inherently immoral.


HEFFNER: So now when we talk about Universal Basic Income, we’re talking about it in the context and I’m pulling up a recent figure, Schwab had reported on this, and you know most financial experts, scholars, historians of the free market, would accept the fact that it is unprecedented that 745, that’s hundred right. 745 billionaires have $5 trillion dollars, 50 percent of all U.S. households. So not individual billionaires, but households, multiple people have $3 trillion dollars. So that’s the capitalism we live with. And I’ve been calling it a cannibal capitalism, which was the title of the Washington Post reporter’s book some years ago,which I thought so perfectly captured the American system right now. But that’s the climate in which we’re saying, you know, people are working, they’re not getting a living wage and therefore Universal Basic Income, whether you’re in poverty or whether you’re in a single job or balancing several jobs, is necessary. But, so that’s the economic context, right, when you say poverty is the problem. We know that that precondition, that pre pandemic reality is this inequity and it’s along racial lines, but it’s vast. It’s, it’s racial, it’s cultural, it’s geographic. But fundamentally Mr. Mayor, that’s what we’re talking about, right? That economic or socioeconomic context?


TUBBS: Yeah. And it sounds when you say it, when you hear it, it sounds so foreign to the America we’re taught that we live in, that I think that’s part of the work we have to do is like raise consciousness. That literally a handful of people, or more than a handful of people, let’s say a bus load of people have more collective wealth than hundreds of millions of people in this country, hundreds of millions of people who are working, hundreds of millions of people who are actually doing the labor off of that low cost, that made them wealthy. And, I think that’s what we’re going to have to grapple with or we’re going to continue to see polarization. We’re going to continue to see this nihilism. We’re going to continuously see these fraudulent populous demagogues come up and say, I’ve the answer because there is a real problem.


It is really frustrating and upsetting for that to be the reality, especially when you’re taught that America is the land of opportunity. That America is a place where you could work hard, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Doesn’t matter where you’re born, as long as your parents are, and you can make it. And I mean, we can argue whether that has ever been true, but we know for a fact, that’s especially not true today. I’ve given that these extreme disparities. And while I say this, as someone who knows several billionaires, I tell them this all the time, it’s not about you individually being good or bad, or you individually doing good or bad things with your money. It’s about a system that’s bad. It’s creating these bad outcomes that aren’t good for your children, that are good for my children, that aren’t good for all of us. So we have to fix it.


HEFFNER: Right. And, and there was the school of thought for a while in this capitalistic system, that philanthropy was the solution. That the byproduct of those trillionaires or billionaires was going to be philanthropy. And that was going to be a cure-all. Now we know that whether it’s at the individual level or the corporate level, the idea of cleaning up your mess after we’re in a place that we are, is so hard to swallow because it’s so unfeasible. I mean, that’s what Senator Warren’s campaign so brilliantly understood. She wasn’t the only person running for president who understood that. In fact, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both talked about folks getting a raw deal, in 2016. So when you say that your Universal Basic Income proposition, or proposals, and then implementation was subject to disinformation and scrutiny, fairly, but also unfairly, disinformation attacks. What did you learn from that experience that’s going to be the most effective UBI system, because what Senator Warren and a handful of others recognized is that the balance is so unequal now that this state of disequilibrium is virtually permanent unless there are radical proposals that are implemented to make things modestly more equitable. There’s still going to be haves and have nots, but not at the level there are today. I mean, and potentially they’re going to be haves that have a lot of, consume a lot. And then they’re just going to be people who have, but they have less. Right now we have haves and have nots. How do you think UBI, you know, you still believe in it, can produce a society that’s does not have and have not, but folks who have some more and, but folks who have a base level of the essential?


TUBBS: I appreciate the question. I spent a lot of time sort of thinking about that notion in “The Deeper the Roots” and what I came to is that our goal and our mission is to create a society that is, that we can’t create a society with equal outcomes, but we can create a society with just outcomes, with outcomes that are because not because of discrimination, not because of massive inequality, but because if like we think of this because of effort, because of ability, et cetera. And to your point, I think a Universal Basic Income or a guaranteed income is an important part of a social safety net, but it’s not a panacea for everything, particularly because income isn’t wealth. Like income and wealth are different things. But I think a basic income, a guaranteed income, et cetera, crazy to your point, its foundation a floor.


So yes, some people may still have three houses. Some people may have yachts. People may be able to afford to find the space themselves, but no one will have to be homeless. But no one will be hungry, but no one will be quite destitute. And no one be working 16 hours a day, working themselves to death and still not be able to pay rent at the end of the month. And I think that’s a huge first step, but we also have to talk about sort of a whole slate of policies are needed to repair harm. We have to look at least increasing the marginal tax rates where it was, and then Ronald Reagan, as a start. We have to really talk about anti-trust and talk about service, if this is our New Deal moment, how are we going to break up these big social media companies like Facebook. We have to talk about sort of data, should people own data and own the dividends that’s created from it. There’s a whole slate of things we have to do, but I would say in terms of the immediate crisis a basic income is a huge first step because it allows everyone that floor. And then the ability to breathe. I think from that we could have and begin to build an even more balanced playing field.


HEFFNER: That’s a very helpful way to frame it because you’re identifying what must be proactive in order to then approach retroactively what has to be assessed. That was the idea of a wealth tax on the disproportionate incomes that have been accumulated to date that make it inherently inequitable today, right? Because if you only look at it on the future side, and now not on the past side, then you won’t really get a measure of potential equity and opportunity. But what made the proposals and implementation that you undertook, if they were more vulnerable to those attacks? Clearly in New York city you know, then Democratic mayoral candidate Andrew Yang was an ally of the movement, a vocal advocate of UBI in his campaign. And he came under attacks for it as well. However, he was not really speaking to the broad experience of economic inequality and what had to be done retroactively, to eve, you know, again, it’s not to shave things off, right?


It’s not about evening things. It’s about making people have a chance again, and a starting point that is equitable. And then not erasing people’s advantages but you know, making their advantages not so insurmountable for everybody else, right? So I guess my question is what, in terms of the mechanics of the policy, you know, is, should it be adopted as a income-based metric to say, you know, you qualify for UBI if you make below the poverty line or below a certain income? What are the policies that you would suggest that are not going to run into the disinformation attacks? They’re going to be there no matter what, how can you craft it in a way that’s going to be most persuasive?


TUBBS: Yeah, I would say anytime you’re advocating for poor people, anytime you’re advocating for people of color, in particular black people, that you’re going to be subject to this information and that’s like American history since like Bacon’s rebellion, right? Like probably before the Mayflower, that’s just sort of the context of the society we live in. But to your point, there is a way to craft policy that at least leads to the right outcome. So right now actually I mean, it depends on what’s politically feasible. So in terms of what I think is politically feasible, we’ve seen sort of great success with the stimulus checks and with this child tax credit. And I mean, there’s, I get the arguments around sort of universality, and I think that’s the goal, but to be ruthlessly pragmatic, it feels like sort of 75 K and below for individual, or when has it like the same guidelines we use for the COVID stimulus checks would be a great first step to, hey, let’s just make this monthly for these folks, or let’s make it monthly for the families and make the child tax credit permanent.


And I think that has to be the first step just because democracy is so messy. We have yet to agree on universal healthcare, right? So it’s going to be really hard to get to Universal Basic Income, although not impossible. I think the first step is saying, how do we craft something that abolishes poverty? So we know that no one lives under the poverty line, I think sort of Darrick Hamilton. Dr. Darrick Hamilton the researcher, has a proposal around sort of a tax credit that would be a form of guaranteed income, for families making a hundred K or less. I mean, that’s like everyone, that’s like 90 or 85 percent of American families. That’s a huge first step. And I think from there, we’re going to again, see the need for university because pandemics are going to keep happening. We live in a time of pandemic and economic resilience is tantamount to safety and to life in time of pandemic. And we also, we know that automation is coming. We also know that some jobs that exist today won’t exist tomorrow, and that we have to be thinking about sort of how do we help people transition and how do we also rethink of how we think of work so that everyone’s able to contribute. And everyone’s able to feel like they’re there, they’re there, they’re doing something meaningful for our society. And I’m sure I know that’s a super long answer, but I tend to nerd out on it.


HEFFNER: I want you to elaborate on this fact that we have that imbalance in that those, you know, dozens of people or hundreds of people own more wealth than 50 percent of the country. And there are stunning statistics too, that economists reveal every day that show the historic nature of the inequality in this country. And this is happening at the same time that even when Walmart wants to incentivize new enrollment in its workforce, by inviting folks who are employees to have their college tuition and their books paid for, that’s a new proposal that I think is going into effect soon at Walmart, there are other measures that are in under consideration by companies that realize they’re not able to fill jobs. And, and so not only is this historic in the inequity is historic, I read recently you know, in various business publications that never before in this country has there been as depleted a you know, workforce in terms of the number of openings relative to the people who want to take on those openings. And, you know, does the inequity explain that and why people aren’t signing up to, to flip burgers? I mean, they’re not just that I don’t want to lead people to think that only the fast-food industry or Walmart superstores are in this category. It seems as though there are a lot of industries that are in this category, and even as they incentivize their workforce and employees to join them, it’s not working.

TUBBS: Well. Yeah. And I think part of it is that all the incentives seem to be everything but what people need: higher wages, like healthcare, like stable hours, the ability to schedule. I know a lot of retail workers haven’t been going to work because in the context of this pandemic, we have kids who aren’t in school and on Zoom, we have sort of retail workers who don’t have a set schedule every week. And it’s hard to balance sort of kids, caregiving, and not knowing what hours you work this week, right? Or, or we’re still in a pandemic. We’re still in a pandemic where people may not feel safe working in sort of high contact environments, we are in a pandemic where people may not feel safe because they’re living because of the inequality they’re living two or three generations in a house. So there’s, so grandma or grandpa or an immunocompromised child’s there.


So, I do think this is a real reckoning in terms of wow, the stock market is doing so great. The richer have gotten even richer during the pandemic, yet we can’t find people. We haven’t created the environments where people feel safe going back to work or work is worth, where they’re treated with dignity at the workforce. So I think a conversation has to be about wages. Even the call for a $15 minimum wage. There just not one place in this country where you could buy, afford a one-bedroom apartment, rent at $15 an hour.


HEFFNER: You know, the, if, if there there’s not a magic bullet, but if there were an approach that ought to be adopted for housing, affordable public, whatever solution needs to be adopted, what is the single most important approach to take when it comes to making housing more accessible?


TUBBS: I think it’s multifaceted, but number well, we have to eliminate sort of single zoning. Like we just have to eliminate, like we have to really do some real zoning reform. Number two, we have to build more housing. We have to build more affordable housing. If the market doesn’t do it, government will have to, because people have to be able to afford where they live. And number three, we have to have a jobs, housing balance. You can’t build a mega factory with 5,000 jobs and then have no housing with it because then those folks are to move to places like Stockton, drive up rent prices. And then number three, we have to have some form of rent control, rent cap, like people have to be able to, should not be spending more than a third of their income on rent.


HFFFNER: Author of “The Deeper the Roots” and former mayor of Stockton, California, and current advisor on economic mobility to Governor Newsom of California. Michael Tubbs, an honor to be with you today. Thank you.


TUBBS: Well, thank you so much for having me.


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